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How Prepared is Britain for Major Terror Attack? - 2004-03-22

British police have set up an anti-terrorist hotline for the public to report suspicious activity as new questions arise over Britain's ability to handle a Madrid-style terrorist attack.

Police say the objective of their new anti-terrorism campaign is to turn Britain into what one senior officer calls "the most hostile environment" for terrorist activity.

Police say they want citizens to call a special hotline to report suspected terrorists. In particular, police say, landlords, hotel operators and auto dealers should be alert to people seeking short-term accommodations, or who pay large sums of cash for a vehicle.

The new campaign comes as British police investigate whether al-Qaida supporters in Britain gave financial support to the bombers who killed more than 200 people in attacks on trains in Madrid earlier this month.

At the same time, questions are being raised over whether Britain is prepared to handle a Madrid-style attack.

The country's chief emergency planner, Patrick Cunningham, said local authorities could provide only what he called "a token gesture of support" during a major disaster, as he explained on British radio Monday. "Staff who would be vital in response to an emergency haven't got the equipment that they require," he said. "They haven't had sufficient training, and generally there is a lacking of an emergency planning culture in the United Kingdom."

The government minister for disaster preparedness, Douglas Alexander, disputed this. He said Britain's budget for civil defense has risen 35 percent since the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, and he said Britain can draw lessons from its long fight against Irish republican terrorists.

"Since September 11, 2001, we have made huge strides in this country to respond to the terrorist threat, and frankly we have more than 30 years of experience, regrettably here in the United Kingdom, in dealing with the threat of terrorism," said Mr. Alexander. "That's why we've toughened our counter-terrorism legislation, we've tightened port, airport and border security, we've frozen the assets of international terrorist organizations, and we've given the police more powers than they've ever had before."

Adding fuel the debate about Britain's anti-terrorist defenses is an embarrassing security breach that occurred during an anti-war demonstration in London Saturday.

Two protesters managed to elude police security and scale the Big Ben clock tower, which overlooks parliament and other major government offices in the heart of the British capital.

The leader of Britain's House of Commons, Peter Hain, said he is deeply disturbed by the incident, and he is demanding an urgent police investigation.