LONDON — Police radically revised the timing of the deadly blasts that tore through the London Underground, saying yesterday that the bombs were detonated just seconds apart — not 26 minutes as first reported.
The explosions were so intense that none of the 49 known dead has been identified.
Many bodies still lay buried in a rat-infested subway tunnel, and frantic relatives begged for word about others still missing in the worst attack on London since World War II. Police indicated as many as 50 additional victims were unaccounted for.
In a sign of the continued state of alert, police evacuated 20,000 people from Birmingham’s central entertainment district last night after intelligence indicated a “substantial threat,” said Stuart Hyde, assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police.
He said the alert was not likely connected to the subway and bus bombings. A controlled explosion to disarm a suspicious object was carried out on a Birmingham bus, and officers concluded there had been no explosive device.
In southern England, Eurostar train services, which link Paris and London, were delayed after a security alert closed the Ashford international station for about an hour. Two pieces of unattended luggage were destroyed in controlled explosions and later found to contain nothing suspicious.
Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Brian Paddick said the near-simultaneous nature of the attacks Thursday indicated timers — not suicide bombers — set off the explosions. He cautioned, however, that the investigation was in an early stage and nothing had been ruled out.
Investigators also said the bombs that brought the British capital to a standstill were made of sophisticated high explosives. Although the explosives might have been industrial or military materials obtained on the black market, investigators said, it was too early to pinpoint where the terrorist bombers obtained the ingredients.
Investigators repeated their assertion that the bombings bore the signature of al Qaeda, the terror network blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The organization, headed by Osama bin Laden, has gained a reputation for sophisticated timing in its terror strikes.
“It will be some time before this job is completed and it will be done with all the necessary dignity to the deceased,” said Andy Trotter of the British Transport Police.
Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, the purported mastermind of last year’s Madrid railway bombings, has emerged as a suspect in the London attacks, said unidentified investigators cited in the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday.
Nasar, who also goes by the name Abu Musab al-Suri, is suspected of being al Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe. The Syrian fugitive is thought to have played a key role in setting up an al Qaeda structure in Spain and was indicted there in connection with the September 11 attacks in the United States. Last year, the United States offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Transit officials originally said the blasts Thursday occurred over a 26-minute span, but computer software that tracked train locations and electric circuits subsequently determined the first explosion shattered the rush-hour commute at 8:50 a.m. in Aldgate station, East London, with the next two erupting within 50 seconds.
A fourth explosion tore through a double-decker bus near a subway entrance, killing 13 persons, nearly an hour later. The attacks hit as President Bush and other leaders from the Group of Eight industrial nations were holding a summit in Scotland and a day after London was named the host city for the 2012 Olympics.
Scotland Yard has declined to issue a list of the missing. Police said yesterday they were looking into more than 1,000 missing-person reports, although they do not think more than 50 of them are connected to the bombings, suggesting the death toll will remain below 100.
More than 20 people injured in the blasts remained in critical condition, and an unknown number of bodies remained in the Russell Square subway tunnel, where heat, dust and dangerous conditions slowed crews trying to reach the corpses. Many London subway lines run more than 100 feet below ground.
“It is a very harrowing task,” said police Detective Jim Dickie. “Most of the victims have suffered intensive trauma, and by that I mean there are body parts as well as torsos.” Many of those who worked to recover bodies had done the same work after the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
Forensics specialists were relying on fingerprints, dental records and DNA analysis to identify the victims. To help with DNA matches, police were asking for hair samples from those thought to be family members of some victims.