/ 9 July 2005

Thousands evacuated from Birmingham

British police evacuated 20 000 people from the centre of Britain’s second-biggest city, Birmingham, and carried out a controlled explosion on a bus on Saturday evening after receiving intelligence on an unspecified threat, a senior police officer said.

“We have evacuated an area of Birmingham city centre… and we are asking people who are there at the moment to go home,” said Stuart Hyde, assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police.

Police insisted that the decision to close such a large part of the city had not been taken lightly and Hyde confirmed that a controlled explosion had been carried out on a bus.

Hyde said the measures were taken following information about a “substantial threat” to the area, but he said the incident was probably not connected to the London bomb attacks.

“I don’t believe that the incident that we are dealing with this evening is connected with the events of July 7 in London,” he said. “I want to make that pretty clear.”

The officer praised the public and staff at clubs, bars and other business premises for being extremely cooperative with efforts to move people away from the city centre.

“We have made this decision after careful analysis and consideration and we are very, very grateful to the public for their understanding. We believe it is a proportionate response to the information.”

About 200 bars, restaurants and clubs were emptied and searched. A police helicopter patrolled the skies as traffic stood at a standstill around the city with guards posted on main thoroughfares and turning back traffic.

Revellers who would normally have been enjoying themselves in city bars, pubs and clubs were making their way home, although many appeared not to know what transport to take.

French student Natalie Perrier (19) was evacuated from her flat in the zone.

“I saw helicopters in front of my house, there were three police cars as well going around the streets,” she said. “I was just scared. I didn’t know what was happening.”

One man, who gave his name only as Ali, described how he was in a casino when the call to evacuate was given.

“The staff made an announcement and said that if we wanted to stay we could but we couldn’t go outside,” he said. “But after that the police came and ordered everyone out.”

Allan Sartori, a Birmingham club owner, was quoted on the Guardian website as telling ITV News that police appeared to have the situation under control.

He said he had himself already returned home, adding: “I would suspect that everything’s pretty calm at the moment and that everyone has moved away and done exactly what they were asked to do.”

Sartori said evacuating the city centre would have cost “a lot of people a lot of money”. But he added: “People’s lives are far more important than money in a situation like this.”

Police had issued a statement at 19h00 GMT warning they had received intelligence to suggest a threat to the city centre.

The evacuation came two days after the bomb attacks, in which at least 50 people were killed and some 700 injured, on London’s underground rail system and a double-decker bus.

Police warned on Saturday that further attacks could not be ruled out.

The city is no stranger to terrorist attacks. The notorious IRA pub bombings of 1974 were some of the most serious terrorist atrocities ever committed in mainland Britain, claiming the lives of 21 people and leaving scores more injured.

Birmingham has a population of about 991 900 and is situated in the English Midlands region.