LONDON – British counterterrorism investigators searched homes and detained more people Monday in the London attack investigation as an intense political firestorm developed over Prime Minister Theresa May’s role in reducing police ranks.
The vehicle and knife attack launched by three men in the London Bridge area Saturday night that killed seven people and injured dozens is shaping the final days of an election campaign, focusing attention on May before Thursday’s vote.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn Monday said he supported those calling for May to resign because of her role reducing police staffing during her tenure as home secretary, though he said the best remedy was to vote her out.
“There’s an election on Thursday, that’s the chance,” he said, citing an “appalling” cut in police staffing levels.
“We’re calling for a restoration of police numbers, and there’s a call being made for her to go, because of what she’s done on the police numbers.”
May, under fire because of three major attacks in Britain in the last three months, said Corbyn wasn’t fit to safeguard Britain’s security at a time of heightened threat.
“We have given increased powers to the police to be able to deal with terrorists — powers which Jeremy Corbyn has boasted he has always opposed,” she said.
Authorities said police know the identity of the three attackers — who were shot dead by police — but won’t yet make them public for operational reasons.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for Saturday night’s brazen attack that started on London Bridge, then continued in the streets surrounding Borough Market. Police have 11 people in custody on suspicion of violating the Terrorism Act, but they haven’t been named or charged. Others who had been arrested were released without being charged.
Police said Monday that “a number” of other people have been detained, but no details were provided.
Most of the London Underground stations reopened Monday in the neighborhood where the attack took place, allowing normal life and commerce to resume after more than 24 hours of lockdown. Some residents cooped up inside all day Sunday emerged from their homes for the first time since the attacks.
“We were all stuck!” said Marcia Rainford, a 58-year-old who said she was sealed into her building complex with her mother and two children.
“We got blocked in. One whole day,” she said. Luckily she had a full fridge. “I always stock up!”
Dozens were injured, many of them critically, in the attack that started on the London Bridge, when three attackers swerved the vehicle into pedestrians then, armed with knives, rampaged through Borough Market, slashing and stabbing anyone they could find. The three men wore fake suicide vests — to make them even more imposing.
It is not clear how having more police on the beat would have prevented the attack, since the men were shot dead within eight minutes, but the issue of police cuts has come back to haunt May, who served for six years at home secretary under her predecessor David Cameron before she became prime minister last year.
During that time, police numbers have dropped by roughly 20,000 officers, and the number of armed officers has fallen as well.
May said Monday that Britain’s counterterrorism operations are fully funded, but London Mayor Sadiq Khan — a Labour figure — said cuts to police have been draconian.
“Over the last seven years, we as a city have lost 600 million pounds ($775 million) from our budget,” he said. “We have had to close police stations, sell police buildings and we’ve lost thousands of police staff.”
The country’s official terror threat level had been set at “critical” in the parlous days after the Manchester concert bombing on May 22 that killed 22 people — reflecting a judgment that an attack might be imminent because accomplices with similar bombs might be on the loose.
It was lowered once intelligence agencies were comfortable that this wasn’t the case. The London attack, carried out by three knife-wielding men in a rented van, is apparently unconnected to the Manchester bombing.
May has said the three attacks — including one on Parliament in March — weren’t connected in any operational sense but were linked by what she called the “perverted ideology” of extremist Islam.
Khan and Police Commissioner Cressida Dick Friday toured the site of the attack and praised the quick police work that they said prevented further deaths.
Dick said Monday the attack was “ghastly,” but that Londoners are pulling together and refusing to be cowed by extremists.
She said providing more firearms for London police wouldn’t be a sensible solution to the increased tempo of attacks, saying the strategy of having special mobile units of heavily armed officers is effective.
Khan and Dick were briefly heckled by a man who called for more police to be put on the streets.