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Search for missing goes on; bombs went off almost simultaneously

LONDON—The pleas for information about lost loved ones streamed across the bottom of television screens, were stuck to shop windows and rang police lines at a steady stream in London, three days after four mass transit bombings killed at least 49 people.

Police have said the death toll will certainly climb, as there are still dead trapped in underground wreckage. Currently about 25 people are considered missing.

London police said Saturday that they continued to receive thousands of phone calls from people missing friends or family, and while "our hearts go out to them," said that the identification process would be a slow one. Television stations were running banners on their screens, with notes from worried people urging one woman to "please get in touch with family," another to "please call Jo to let her know you are OK."

Meanwhile, the investigation determined that three of the four bombs exploded within 50 seconds of each other. The evidence, gleaned from a computer system called TrackerNet, suggested a high level of coordination, more than was evident earlier when investigators believed the first three bombs exploded during a 26-minute stretch.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick said the new timeline meant the attack was highly planned, though it did not reveal exactly how it was carried out.

"All three bombs on the London Underground system actually exploded within seconds of each other, at 8:50 in the morning," he said. "You could have three people on three trains having synchronized their watches, setting these bombs off manually. You could have three timing devices."

He added that timing devices are now viewed as the more likely source of the detonations, but that they had yet to rule out suicide bombers. The fourth bomb went off on a London double-decker bus, about an hour later. Police are focusing on a nervous man seen fiddling with a bag on the bus just before the explosion.

Also Saturday, British officials and police said future terror attacks are still possible, as the bombers are thought to be at large. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a radio statement Saturday that London—like all cities—is now and will always be vulnerable to such attacks.

"If people are actually prepared to go on to a Tube or a bus and blow up wholly innocent people, people just at random, to do the maximum death and destruction without any thought for their human rights or human life, you can have all the surveillance in the world and you couldn't stop that happening," he said.

Deputy Chief Constable Andy Trotter of the British Transport Police added—while standing in front of the King's Cross station, site of the deadliest of the four attacks—that airport-level security isn't possible in a mass transport system.

"London would grind to a halt," he said. "It's perfectly possible that terrorists could strike again. We are quite determined to redouble our efforts to keep London safe, however."

In fact, a second alleged terror group—the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades—came forward Saturday to claim responsibility for the blasts, noting that "the coming days will see a greater display of jihad." Officials noted that their investigation would continue, both underground for clues, and following leads around the world, and that it was too early to make judgments on the veracity of such claims.

As for the timing of the blasts, American Tim O'Toole, the managing director of the London Underground, said a computer system called TrackerNet had been installed on some of its lines earlier this year, and that electronic sensors, which were operating at two of the three blast sites, showed the exact times of the explosions and pinpointed the precise locations of the trains.

At the third explosion site, deep underground near King's Cross Station, the TrackerNet system has not yet been installed, but other less sophisticated sensors made clear the time of the explosion. The initial police timeline was based on incoming emergency phone calls, O'Toole said.

O'Toole, who spent years as a freight railroad executive in Philadelphia, said pinpointing the time could help identify the terrorists, when used in connection with footage from the closed circuit cameras that are in use throughout the underground. Experts have said that the sheer amount of footage would make identification difficult, though an exact time would make the job more doable.

"The police in this city solve crimes almost every day using CCTV footage," O'Toole said.

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(Dilanian reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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