Urban terror threats prompt new UK police training

AP News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2010 12:55 PM
Urban terror threats prompt new UK police training

The British bobby is about to go ballistic.

Faced with growing terror threats involving urban areas, British police are receiving new weapons and specialized training from the SAS, Britain's elite military unit. The hope is that the training and equipment will help if Britain ever faces an attack similar to the 2008 Mumbai shooting spree that killed 166 people and paralyzed India's business capital for days.

Tuesday's announcement comes amid an active European terror threat being tracked by U.S. and European officials. The U.K.'s terror threat rating remains at "severe" _ the second highest tier _ which means an attack is likely.

News of a possible Mumbai-styled small arms attack emerged last month after the CIA increased strikes in Pakistan to flush out al-Qaida operatives suspected in the plot. Some of the plot's details came from a terror suspect arrested in Afghanistan, intelligence officials have said.

Terror attacks in cities pose multiple challenges _ there are more people, increased difficulties in responding because of clogged routes and multiple problems in evacuating crowds.

British officials have refused to comment on whether the plan will arm more of Britain's some 144,000 police officers _ a fraction of whom are in armed response units. But they praised the new training.

"We are in a much better place than ever before, with dedicated counterterrorism units based within our regions," a spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with departmental policy. "This new training and equipment will put us in an even better position."

Part of the problem in Mumbai was that the first Indian police to respond were armed with little else than sticks and batons while the attackers had AK-47s.

Britain has a deep-rooted tradition of having unassuming and unarmed police _ iconic images of bobbies donning their trademark hats and batons.

Although gun crimes are relatively rare in Britain because of tough gun laws, unarmed police struggled for hours last summer to stop a taxi cab driver who went on a shooting spree, killing a dozen people in rural England. Officers said they had to break off their pursuit of the suspect, Derrick Bird, when he turned his gun on unarmed officers.

The new police arsenal will include automatic or semiautomatic weapons that are more powerful and accurate, but Britain's Home Office _ which overseas the police _ refused to give further details about the types of weapons or how many officers would receive them.

Some U.S. officials have been calling for American police officers to be armed with assault rifles to better prepare for Mumbai-style urban attacks.

Warren Bamford, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, has backed proposals to arm some neighborhood police with the semiautomatic weapons. Boston Mayor Tom Menino had criticized a proposal to arm up to 200 officers with M-16s, saying only specialized police units should have those guns.

The New York Police Department, after studying the Mumbai attack, decided to train reinforcements for its 400 Emergency Service Unit officers who can carry fully automatic Colt M4 rifles. An additional 200 officers have regularly been put through exercises using Mini-14s, a lightweight semiautomatic weapon.

Indian police are also changing their tactics and equipment.

"Mumbai police officers showed tremendous devotion to duty, but they lacked the requisite commando training and equipment to fight the attackers," said K.P.S. Gill, a retired senior Indian police officer with experience in India's counterinsurgency operations.

An inquiry this month into the 2005 suicide attacks in London that killed 52 commuters illustrated just how difficult it was for emergency workers to reach four separate blast sites and the chaos that reigned as everyone tried to determine what was happening.

Militaries around the world have long struggled with urban warfare. "The Battle of Algiers" _ a film about France's colonial struggle with insurgents in the Algerian capital _ has been used by militants and governments alike as a training lesson in urban combat.

"Most of us have specialized training of some sort, but a situation like Mumbai would be difficult to deal with in London _ largely because of how densely populated it is and because of how badly it's congested," a police officer in a specialized unit told The Associated Press. "There would almost certainly be casualties."

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Home Office declined to elaborate on the training, some of which will be taking place at military bases in Britain. The Ministry of Defense would also not comment on the training.

Brian Jones, an American tourist in London, said he believed all the equipment and training in the world wouldn't likely stop an urban attack.

"What happens happens and there is nothing we can really do to stop it," said the 50-year-old from Boston.

But 21-year-old Payal Patel from India had a different view.

"I think increasing security this way is absolutely necessary," she said. "We need to do what we can to prevent any future attacks."

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Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma contributed to this report from Delhi, Tom Hays from Manhattan and Gillian Smith from London.