Irish terrorists waded into Britain's general election campaign yesterday with a series of bomb scares in London aimed at forcing Britain to leave Northern Ireland.
Police in the capital received dozens of coded warnings during the morning rush hour from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) claiming that explosives had been placed in strategic locations.
The result was a disruption of British life unprecedented in any earlier IRA campaign - accompanied by the knowledge that similar coordinated attacks could occur any time in the future.
In pursuit of what Prime Minister John Major denounced as "a cowardly, futile campaign" to force a change the policy of the next British government toward Northern Ireland, the IRA's messages - said by police to be carefully coordinated - resulted in central London being paralyzed for several hours.
Mr. Major, with backing from opposition Labour Party leader Tony Blair, said the bomb threats, the culmination of a month of similar scares in other parts of Britain, would not produce a shift in official policy.
Paul Wilkinson, a security specialist who advises the British government on antiterrorism, says the hoax calls were "clearly intended as a warning to whoever wins the [May 1] election that massive disruption will continue until the IRA's aims are met."
But Mr. Wilkinson says it was "imperative that the authorities hold firm in the face of these provocations."
Major commended the "stoicism and good humor" with which Londoners coped with the chaos, saying: "This is not going to change our minds about Northern Ireland."
Mr. Blair called the bomb hoaxes "intolerable" and "clearly aimed at disrupting the election campaign."
Cmdr. John Grieve, national coordinator for antiterrorism in Britain, said the IRA had again exposed the "acute problem" the police faced in trying to counter terror tactics aimed at "sensitive targets."
He said the IRA's strategy was to cause "maximum disruption for others with minimum risk to itself."
"We have to carry out searches, but often we are dealing with hoax calls," Commander Grieve said.
Earlier IRA disruptions in Britain
Earlier this month, the IRA forced the postponement of the Grand National steeplechase, Britain's premier horse race. Police had no option but to clear 70,000 people from the Aintree track, near Liverpool, as the entire area was searched for explosive devices.
As with yesterday's scares, no explosives were found at Aintree, although two days before the Grand National scare, two bombs had been placed under freeways in central England.
Last Friday, the IRA issued hoax warnings about bombs allegedly placed at train stations and on a freeway in northern England.
Despite candidates Major and Blair so far taking a tough line, businesses have begun to express alarm at the economic damage the terrorists are showing themselves capable of inflicting on Britain.
Ruth Lea, spokeswoman for the Institute of Directors, a business management group, says normal traffic gridlock costs the British economy from 15 billion to 20 billion ($24 billion to $32 billion) a year. "It will be some time before the cost of this latest outrage is assessed, but it will be considerable," Ms. Lea says, adding, "But I think the IRA will find we are resilient in the face of such pressures."
The IRA is unlikely to have won itself many friends by the forced closure of London's airports and rail stations.
The capital's airports and five main rail stations had to be shut down as police searched for bombs, leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded. Vehicle traffic became gridlocked on the city's fringes as police cleared large areas of downtown London, including Trafalgar Square, which was nearly deserted.
At Heathrow airport, the main international terminal was shut down for several hours. At Gatwick, the second-largest airport, British Airways alone had to cancel 50 outbound flights. The airport at one point was forced to accommodate 8,000 passengers in aircraft hangars and other places of safety as inbound flights landed.
A Gatwick airport spokesman said passengers aboard more than a dozen landing planes had to remain in their seats, some for several hours, as staff tried to cope with the buildup of people. Security forces regard airports as high-risk IRA targets. In 1994, Irish terrorists fired mortars onto the main runway at Heathrow.
Security expert Wilkinson says the IRA is apparently calculating that if it keeps up the pressure with a mix of real and hoax bomb warnings, "sooner or later the British authorities will buckle." In February last year, the IRA shattered a 17-month cease-fire by detonating a huge bomb in London's docklands area, killing two.
Since then, there have been bomb attacks on shopping centers in major cities. But IRA bombs have been notably absent in Northern Ireland itself, where Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, is campaigning for election to the British Parliament.