Six street cleaners were dramatically held by anti-terror police early yesterday over fears that they were plotting an atrocity against the Pope during his visit to Britain.
Armed officers detained the men, all believed to be Muslims of North African origin, as they prepared to go on shift at a cleaning depot in Central London.
A few hours earlier, counter-terrorism officers had been tipped off that the men could have been planning to ‘harm’ Pope Benedict XVI or carry out some sort of atrocity to coincide with his visit.
With only a short time to assess the credibility of the information, Yard chiefs authorised their arrests.
Their response reflected the nervousness which surrounds the visit of the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics – who prompted outrage four years ago when he said the Prophet Mohammed had brought the world only ‘evil and inhuman’ things.
He later apologised, claiming his words had been misinterpreted.
Before yesterday’s developments, police had stressed they had not received any intelligence of a ‘specific threat’ to the Pontiff.
Nevertheless, a £3.3million operation has been put in place to protect the Pope during his tour of Scotland, London and the West Midlands.
Five suspects were arrested by officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command shortly before 6am.
It is believed a colleague or friend overheard a conversation which suggested a possible terror attack against the Pope was being plotted and tipped off detectives.
The suspects, aged 26, 27, 36, 40 and 50, were held under the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
The arrests took place at a depot in Chiltern Street, Paddington, run by Veolia Environment Services, a contract cleaning company that does work for Westminster City Council.
The premises were searched yesterday, as were the suspects’ homes in North and East London.
Later a sixth street cleaner was arrested. Scotland Yard said the suspect, aged 29, was held by officers at a home in North London shortly before 2pm yesterday.
A spokesman said he was arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
It is understood the man acted ‘oddly’ following the arrest of his colleagues and he was detained as a precaution.
By late yesterday afternoon police had not discovered any bombs, devices, weapons or hazardous items and speculation was mounting that the suspects could be released without charge after the Pope leaves England tomorrow.
The Metropolitan Police said: ‘Today’s arrests were made after police received information following initial inquiries by detectives.
Following today’s arrests policing arrangements for the papal visit were reviewed and we are satisfied our current plan remains appropriate. The itinerary has not changed.’
The current official threat level in the UK remains at ‘severe’ which means that security chiefs believe a terror attack is ‘highly likely’.
It is understood the information acted on by the police was received by Scotland Yard and did not involve intelligence gathered by MI5, the domestic security service.
One source said: ‘Because of time constraints, it was difficult to assess the quality of this information. It came in from off the radar, but there were sufficient concerns for these men to be arrested.’
Security sources said it was not clear whether the alleged plot related to an attack on the Pope himself or events or other matters that may be connected to the visit. One source described the arrests as ‘essentially precautionary’.
The UK’s top police officers from England and Scotland spent months planning the security arrangements for the Pope’s visit to the UK.
Father Frederico Lombardi, the Pope’s press spokesman, said the Vatican was ‘totally confident’ in Scotland Yard and the ability of its officers.
The papal team had no direct information about the police operation, he said, adding that the Pope remained calm and had been welcomed warmly everywhere he had gone.
‘The police have already said that there is no need to change the programme,’ he said.
Veolia Environmental Services is a contractor which employs 650 street staff to keep Westminster’s streets clean and free from rubbish, the council said.
Home Office sources said there was no evidence the suspects were in the country illegally. However it is understood that the men’s immigration status was being checked last night.
Following a 2006 speech interpreted as an attack on Muslims, militant Islamists launched a series of threats against the Pope.
He had quoted a 14th-century Christian emperor of Constantinople who said the Prophet Mohammed had introduced things that were ‘evil and inhuman’.
Afterwards, Osama Bin Laden accused the Pontiff of ‘leading a crusade against Islam’.
Last year, a review of security was ordered after the Pope was knocked to the ground just hours before his traditional Christmas Day message.
A woman called Susanna Maiolo, who had a history of mental problems, vaulted over security barriers and dived on top of the 83-year-old as he entered St Peter’s to conduct Midnight Mass.
However, she was grabbed and pulled to the floor by Inspector General Domenico Giani, the head of Vatican security.
Known as the Pope’s guardian angel, the 48-year-old father of two has led a £10million upgrade of the160-strong Vatican security force.
It has extensive intelligence gathering capability, access to Interpol databases, a Papal armed forces special response team and an anti-bomb squad.
Dr Giani is also the Pope’s body-guard, and is rarely more than a few feet from his side.
He is usually seen running alongside the Popemobile – one of two £75,000 Mercedes M-Class SUVs brought to Britain. The vehicles are armour plated and have four bulletproof glass screens.
The Pontiff also has a personal protection unit, who wear black Italian suits, white shirts and black ties, and carry short-wave radios.
Normally they carry Swiss-made Sig Sauer automatic pistols but they have been banned from
carrying guns in Britain.
However, one guard was spotted on the Pope’s plane armed with a 6in knife with a handle, designed for close combat.
CCTV cameras have also been rigged up on security vehicles following the pontiff to record crowd movements and the faces of those clamouring to see him.
Footage is broadcast to a central control point where computerised facial recognition techniques are employed to identify any possible threat. -dailymail