London police chief defends handling of shooting

By Andrew Gray

LONDON - London's police chief on Sunday defended his handling of the fatal shooting of a Brazilian electrician by his officers, insisting he still believed the dead man was a suicide bomber 24 hours after the killing.

Ian Blair, Britain's most senior policeman, also suggested news media were concentrating too much on the shooting rather than the deadly suicide bombings police were investigating when they mistakenly killed 27-year-old Jean Charles de Menezes.

Blair has come under heavy pressure over the July 22 shooting on an underground train. Leaked documents from the investigation into the case last week exposed blunders and cast doubt on initial accounts from police and witnesses.

The embattled Metropolitan Police Commissioner faces an unprecedented move to be questioned by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) as part of its sweeping inquiry into Mr de Menezes's death.

The commission - which has the power to interview police under caution and can recommend criminal charges for misconduct - is due to question other senior officers who oversaw the surveillance operation that led police to wrongly believe the Brazilian was a suicide bomber.

The row over the shooting also intensified yesterday amid claims that the dead man's family had been offered almost £585,000 compensation.

The shooting took place with the capital on edge, the day after a failed attempt to repeat suicide bombings by four British Muslims which killed 52 people two weeks earlier.

"The key component was that at that time -- and for the next 24 hours -- I and everybody who advised me believed the person who was shot was a suicide bomber," Blair told the News of the World newspaper.

Relatives of de Menezes have called on Blair to quit because of police mistakes and information they say was misleading.

However, Home Secretary (interior minister) Charles Clarke backed Blair and his force on Saturday. He said no judgment should be passed on the shooting until the investigation was complete.

Blair defended his actions as two newspapers reported that units involved in the killing were blaming each other.

The broadsheet Observer and tabloid Sunday Mirror both said undercover officers who followed de Menezes -- after he came out of an apartment block under observation as part of the police investigation -- did not believe he posed an immediate threat.

The officers were shocked when armed police arrived at the train at Stockwell station in south London and shot him, the reports said, citing senior police sources.

However, the armed officers maintain they would not have shot the man if he had not been openly identified to them by one of the surveillance team, the Mirror said.

Blair said it was not until the morning after the shooting that he was informed an innocent man had been killed.

"Somebody came in at 10:30am and said the equivalent of 'Houston, we have a problem'," he said. "I thought: 'That's dreadful. What are we going to do about that?"'

Lawyers for the de Menezes family have voiced doubts that senior police officers were not aware of the truth soon after the shooting.

Sky television, citing security sources, reported on the day of the shooting that the dead man was not one of the four who had carried out the failed bomb attacks the previous day.

Also on the day of the shooting, Blair said it was "directly linked to the ongoing and expanding anti-terrorist operation". He did not say the dead man was a suspected suicide bomber.

An IPCC dossier leaked last week revealed that Mr de Menezes had done nothing to indicate he was a potential suicide bomber, and had calmly gone into Stockwell Tube station and boarded a train.

Despite initial claims from Sir Ian and eye-witnesses at the station that his behaviour was suspicious, the IPCC's evidence shows he had neither fled the police nor did he resist them.

He was shot seven times in the head after an officer had grabbed him from behind and held him down.

In Sunday's interview, Blair stressed he had apologised for the killing and was concerned for the de Menezes family.

"But what concerns me is that this part of the story is concentrating on the death of one individual, when we have 52 dead people from all faiths and communities in London and from abroad," he said.

"We have four dead bombers and we have to concentrate on how we find the people who are helping or thinking about planning further atrocities," he said. "It seems the balance of reporting is in the wrong place."

- REUTERS

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