Not jumping to conclusions

New York officials seek clues in the toy-grenade bombing outside the British Consulate Thursday.

Published May 6, 2005 2:27PM (EDT)

The police and FBI were analyzing footage from 17 security cameras Thursday night after two homemade bombs exploded outside the British consulate in New York. The bombs, encased in toy grenades and apparently placed in the soil of a large cement flower tub outside the building, went off at 3:35 a.m. EDT.

The explosion hurled a footlong piece of concrete from the tub through the glass door of the building but injured no one. Firefighters and police from nearby stations rushed to the scene, but did not see anybody running away.

A Dutch U.N. employee arrested at the scene and later questioned by police was released without charge. A jogger, cyclist and taxi were also seen in the security footage. "This is New York," said the police commissioner, Raymond Kelly. "It's 3:30 in the morning, yet these people were out on the street."

One of the cameras appeared to show something being thrown from across the street. The timing of the blasts led to speculation that they were linked to the British election and perhaps the country's role in the Iraq war.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the bombs as "relatively unsophisticated" explosive devices. "It is true that the British Consulate is in that building, but I don't think anybody should jump to conclusions," he said.

The British consul general, Sir Philip Thomas, said an election night party at the offices, hosted by the journalist Sir Harold Evans, would go ahead. "I'm not frightened," Sir Philip said. "Clearly this is Election Day in Britain and our staff just want to get on with their work." British interests overseas have been on the alert in the run-up to the election amid fears of a repeat of the attack in Madrid last year that killed nearly 200 people and swayed the vote days later.

Members of the New York Police Department's counterterrorism bureau, the intelligence division, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force were called to the site. The British Consulate occupies the ninth and 10th floors of the otherwise anonymous office building at 845 Third Ave. Other countries have missions in the 21-story building, and it houses a number of domestic and international companies. At street level, the building has a branch of the North Fork Bank and a sports store.

Five hours after the blasts, the street was still cordoned off. Sniffer dogs combed the area for any other devices but found nothing. The grenades, described as Second World War "novelty" toys, were planted in the soil of the tub, one of 12 installed outside the building as part of post-Sept. 11 security measures to prevent car bombs. There was no evidence of a timer, suggesting the explosives were detonated by hand, according to Kelly.

At the scene, bomb experts were picking through earth from the flower tub mixed with pieces of glass and shrapnel strewn across the pavement in front of the building. A large gash ran the length of the glass door. Pieces of the devices were found up to half a block away.

Police determined that one of the bombs was the size of a pineapple, the other the size of a lemon. The toy grenades had been packed with black powder, which was taken for testing.

"I heard a bang, that's it," a witness told the Associated Press. "I came outside to check it out and I see nothing around, no flames, no smoke, that's it."

Police cordoned off several blocks around the consulate and conducted a sweep of other diplomatic buildings in the area. The consulate is one block from the head office of Citigroup, which is said to be one of a handful of financial institutions listed as targets by al-Qaida.

After the incident, police in Chicago temporarily closed off the area surrounding the British Consulate there.

By David Teather

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