By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - British police said on Friday they were investigating a suspected nail bomb attack on a mosque in central England and were treating the incident as a suspected terrorist act.
Officers were alerted to reports of a loud bang and smoke in Tipton near Birmingham shortly after 1 p.m. No injuries were reported, but the immediate area was evacuated as army bomb disposal experts carried out a search, West Midlands police said.
Assistant Chief Constable Gareth Cann said the discovery of the nails and the location of the blast behind the mosque led them to believe it was a terrorist incident.
"All of those things together make the most likely conclusion at this point that there was some sort of explosion that scattered those nails and that someone who did this looked to cause serious harm," Cann told reporters.
"All of that taken together leads to have a working assumption ... that this is possibly an act of terrorism."
The incident came on the same day as the funeral of soldier Lee Rigby, whose murder on a south London street in May stoked community tensions. Two suspects, both British Muslims, face a murder trial in November.
Birmingham is home to a large Muslim population but local member of parliament Andrew Bailey said relations in his area were very good.
"This is a very stable and peaceful community," he told BBC TV. "The local population are in a real sense of shock and fear."
He said he believed an improvised nail bomb had been placed on the railway lines behind the mosque and exploded when people would normally have been at prayer.
"The fact that they altered the time of the prayer was very fortunate and has meant nobody was injured," he said.
APPEALS FOR CALM
Police have said there has been a rise in the number of attacks on Muslims since Rigby's death, despite politicians and religious leaders appealing for calm.
The English Defence League (EDL), a right-wing group which vociferously opposes Islamism, has staged protests at which its supporters chanted slogans such as "Muslim killers off our streets".
A mosque was burned down in London shortly after the killing and "EDL" scrawled on the side of the building, but it was unclear who caused the fire.
The EDL is planning to hold a rally in Birmingham next week, describing the city as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Last month a number of men from the city were jailed for plotting to attack an EDL rally using a homemade nail bomb.
"Just heard about Tipton, really don't need this," EDL leader Tommy Robinson said on Twitter.
"What sort of moron thinks this will help the situation, not gonna jump to conclusions as it could turn out to be sectarian Sunni v Shia after all they bomb each others mosques worldwide. Whoever done it needs catching."
Muslim groups also condemned the attack.
"Today has been a difficult day for our country with the funeral of Drummer Lee Rigby taking place in Bury and this attack against Muslims and our mosques," said Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation which works to promote understanding between communities.
"Like we will not let terrorism divide us when Lee Rigby was killed, we will not allow these thugs and terrorists to divide Muslims from wider society."
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Andrew Roche)