LONDON (AFP) – Britain has arrested a “large part” of the network behind Manchester’s suicide bomb attack, police said on Friday (May 26), while the government came under fire for cutting police budgets as election campaigning resumed.
Nine suspects are currently in detention on British soil in connection with the blast, for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has claimed responsibility. Police in Libya have detained the father and brother of 22-year-old bomber Salman Abedi.
Mark Rowley, head of Britain’s counter-terrorism police, said police had got hold of “a large part of the network” linked to the atrocity in which seven children aged under 18 were among the 22 dead.
“We are very happy we’ve got our hands around some of the key players that we are concerned about but there’s still a little bit more to do,” he said.
Police said the nine men in British custody ranged in age from 18 to 44, including a 30-year-old arrested in the Moss Side area of south Manchester early Friday and a 44-year-old detained in nearby Rusholme later in the day.
“I woke up because I heard the police shouting, they were shouting ‘Get down, it’s the police, hands on the ground, get on the ground’,” said local resident Anita Santonelli, who said she saw around 10 armed police officers during the morning operation.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was the “responsibility” of governments to minimise the risk of terror by giving police the funding they need after cuts made while Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May served as interior minister.
Following Monday’s attack in which 116 people were also injured, May and Corbyn suspended campaigning for a snap June 8 election.
US TAKES 'FULL RESPONSIBILITY'
The United States’ top diplomat Rex Tillerson also visited London on Friday in an expression of solidarity after Britain reacted furiously to leaks of sensitive details about the investigation emanating from Washington.
“We take full responsibility for that and obviously regret that that happened,” the secretary of state told reporters.
Britain briefly suspended intelligence-sharing with the United States on Thursday over the leaks, but Tillerson said the “special relationship” between the two countries would “withstand this particular unfortunate event”.
US President Donald Trump has threatened to prosecute those responsible for the “deeply troubling” security breach.
Monday’s bombing at a concert by pop idol Ariana Grande was the latest in a series of ISIS-claimed attacks in Europe that have coincided with an offensive on the extremist group in Syria and Iraq by US, British and other Western forces.
Dozens of ISIS fighters were killed in US strikes on Syria on Friday, while masked gunmen killed at least 28 people in an attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Britain’s terror threat assessment has been hiked to “critical”, the highest level, meaning an attack is considered imminent.
The issue of security, which was not widely discussed in the general election campaign before the attack, is now expected to feature highly.
A YouGov poll in The Times newspaper put the Conservatives on 43 per cent compared to Labour on 38 per cent, far better for Labour than the double-digit margin that had previously separated it from the governing party.
However, the poll also suggested that 41 per cent of respondents believe the Conservatives would handle defence and security best, compared to 18 per cent who said the same of Labour.
YouGov polled 2,052 people on Wednesday and Thursday.
May was at the Group of Seven summit in Sicily on Friday where she got the group to demand action from Internet providers and social media firms against extremist content online.
“The fight is moving from the battlefield to the internet,” she told the G-7.
She faced questions from British journalists over police funding cuts during her six years as the interior minister.
The number of police officers fell by 14 per cent, or almost 20,000, between 2009 and 2016, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank.
“We have protected counter-terrorism police funding, we’ve increased the funding for our security and intelligence agencies and we continue to provide them with the support they need,” she insisted.
Manchester-born Abedi, a university dropout, grew up in a Libyan family in the northwestern English city.
Libyan officials said he and his brother Hashem belonged to IS, while their father Ramadan once belonged to a now-disbanded militant group with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda.
A British official said that Abedi had been on the periphery of the intelligence radar before the massacre.
US star Grande said on Friday she was planning a charity concert in the city, writing on social media that she wanted to give “an expression of love for Manchester”.
On Friday evening, the city hosted an athletics contest, the Great City Games, in which the likes of former world 100m champion Kim Collins competed amid robust security.
Victims Alison Howe, 45, and Lisa Lees, 47, were honoured Friday by a vigil in their home town of Oldham, east of Manchester.
Hundreds of people gathered in the Tandle Hill Country Park, releasing pink helium balloons and laying flowers.
“The memory of our victims and their bravery will be known in all of our hearts. We are Manchester, and we stand together,” said speaker Elisia Smith, 24.
Tattoo artists in Manchester have reported a rush of people seeking inkings of worker bees, a longstanding symbol of the industrious city.
Some 66 people are still being treated in hospital, including 23 in critical condition, medical officials said.
Twelve of those injured were under 16, and the youngest killed was an eight-year-old girl.
The decision of ISIS “to target a concert full of children shows their intentions are not authored by God,” Tillerson told British media during his visit.
He said the militant group “worships death”.