The timing was auspicious. As world leaders were gathered at the G8 conference at Gleneagles golf resort in Scotland to discuss aid to Africa and climate change, a third crisis facing the industrialized world pushed its way onto the top of the agenda. Terrorism.
Just prior to 9 a.m. local time -- in the heart of the city's rush hour -- the first explosion ripped through a subway train traveling between Liverpool Street Station and Aldgate in central London. Six more soon followed in a series of blasts -- including one on a double-decker city bus at Tavistock Place whose roof was ripped off like "a can of sardines" according to one eyewitness -- that immediately shut down London's entire transport system and created panic under the streets of the British capital.
Scores were injured in the blasts with more than 180 injured being delivered to the Royal London Hospital alone, a hospital spokesman told the BBC. London police have increased the official death toll to 37, with that figure expected to grow. In the attacks that took place between the King's Cross and Russell Square stations, 21 have been confirmed dead. Other sites hit hard were the stations at Edgware Road and Liverpool Street. At least 700 have been injured -- many seriously.
Instantly, speculation began about what had caused the blasts, with early conjecture centering on a possible power surge in the London grid. Soon, however, it became apparent that the detonations had more sinister origins. Just after midday, a letter from al-Qaida was posted on a Web site often used by the group, claiming responsibility for the attacks.
"Rejoice, community of Muslims," the letter, written by a group calling itself "Secret Organization -- al Qaida in Europe," says. "The heroic mujahedeens today conducted an attack in London." The posting continues by saying the attacks come in response to British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the terror group's claim has not yet been authenticated, officials in London and Prime Minister Tony Blair are now referring to the morning violence as a series of well coordinated terrorist attacks.
"It is reasonably clear that a series of terrorist attacks have happened in London," Blair said in a statement made at the G8 conference. He then traveled to London to get a first hand overview of the situation, but said the G8 meeting would continue. "We will not allow it to stop this summit," he said in a second statement made as he was flanked by the leaders of G8 countries.
According to London authorities, emergency response to the disaster has been well coordinated and has proceeded according to plans put in place to deal with just this sort of eventuality. Londoners have been discouraged from calling the overloaded emergency services unless in the case of a life-threatening situation. Images of dead bodies and access by the press to the attack sites have also been extremely limited, a testimony, perhaps, to the city's efforts to prevent widespread panic from breaking out.
Parallels to Madrid
In many ways, Thursday's bombings had direct parallels to the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain. There, the first of 10 bombs set by Islamic terrorists detonated at 7:37 a.m. in the Atocha train station. Those bombings were also targeted at commuters on their way to work. In total 191 people died and over 1,500 were injured in Europe's worst-ever terrorist attack.
As happened just over one year ago in Spain,reactions from world leaders to the London bombings were prompt and firm. Blair made it clear that he will not allow terrorists to disrupt the G8 conference. "The perpetrators of today's acts are intent on destroying human life," he said. "The terrorists will not succeed."
In New York, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the terrorist attack in a resolution calling for international solidarity in the hunt for the perpetrators of the "barbaric" acts in London.
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose election in March 2004 came just days after the Madrid attacks, expressed solidarity with London. "Spain ... offers its immediate and unconditional help, as well as its full support to the United Kingdom to pursue the criminals that have carried out such a repulsive attack."
Investigations, according to London authorities, have already begun and officers have discovered evidence of explosives at several sites, the London police chief said. British military units have been deployed in the British capital to help maintain calm.
Indeed by evening, the situation had normalized such that many subway lines were back in operation. A restricted service was expected on the Underground on Friday, said a London Transport spokesperson.
In a speech given from 10 Downing Street after he arrived back in London on Thursday, Blair addressed his people, reminding them that this was the work of Islamic extremists and not the everyday Muslims who are also a part of Britain's cultural fabric. "We know that these people act in the name of Islam," the prime minister said, "but we also know that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people who abhor those who do this every bit as much as we do."
DEVELOPING ... check back later for SPIEGEL correspondent reports from London (4:15 p.m. CET)
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