LONDON – Police using ladders and battering rams raided a London mosque -- a known center of radical Islam led by a suspected terrorist -- and arrested seven men early Monday in connection with the recent discovery of the deadly poison ricin.
Dozens of officers wearing bulletproof vests stormed the red-brick Finsbury Park mosque and two neighboring houses just after 2 a.m., as circling helicopters shined spotlights on the buildings below.
Police seized computers and documents, and found a stun gun, an illegal canister of CS gas, similar to pepper spray, and a blank-firing imitation gun.
They found no evidence of ricin in the mosque, where previous worshippers include shoe-bomber Richard Reid and extremists who plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris, officials say.
Mosque leader Abu Hamza al-Masri, whose fiery anti-Western sermons have led Britain to order him removed from his pulpit, was not arrested. The Egyptian-born al-Masri is under police surveillance and is wanted in Yemen on terror charges.
Al-Masri has denied any link with Al Qaeda or other terror activities, though the mosque was used for a rally marking the first anniversary of Sept. 11, during which radical Muslims praised the attacks as revenge on the United States for its Mideast policies.
He repeated denials of terror connections Monday, and denounced the early morning raid as a propaganda exercise that would alienate Muslims.
"It is disgusting. The police have never been denied access to the mosque," al-Masri said. "You cannot find a reason for this kind of Rambo-like way of attacking the mosque."
Police said the raid was connected to the Jan. 5 discovery of traces of ricin -- a poison derived from castor beans that has been linked to the Al Qaeda terror network -- in another part of north London.
The ricin evidence heightened Prime Minister Tony Blair's warnings of possible terror activities in Britain and sparked an investigation that has seen several raids and arrests.
Four North Africans are charged in the initial ricin find, and three more were arrested Jan. 14 in an apartment raid in the northern city Manchester. During that raid, a policeman was stabbed to death when a suspect broke free and grabbed a knife, leading to complaints that police had been ill-prepared.
Police identified those arrested Monday as six North Africans, ages 23-48, and an Eastern European, 22, and said searches continued at the mosque, known officially as the North London Central Mosque.
"There is a national operation against terrorists in this country ... that led us to this mosque," London police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter said.
Sensitive to potential criticism for breaking into place of worship, officers distributed leaflets at Finsbury Park's subway station describing their efforts to respect the mosque and the people inside.
Last July, police faced complaints for raiding a mosque in Lye in central England and forcibly removing a family of Afghan asylum-seekers. This time, officers stressed they had not entered the mosque's prayer rooms, only offices and areas where visitors sleep.
"We had Muslim police officers giving advice about the appropriateness of our actions inside, but public safety is our No. 1 priority," Trotter said.
Still, the raid upset some residents of this gritty, multicultural neighborhood, where North African cafes and bakeries sit alongside Irish pubs.
"I am so angry. The mosque is a holy place," said Mohammed Sekkoum, head of the Algerian Refugee Council.
"We are here to help police, but they did not ask us," added Sekkoum, who has claimed that as many as 100 known Algerian terrorists have entered Britain in the past two years. "They knew what was going on here. Why didn't they do anything until now?"
A neighbor of the mosque, who gave his name only as Ali, said as many as 100 young men often slept at the mosque, working as cleaners, kitchen help or security guards in return for shelter. He said the mosque drew worshippers from Pakistan, Algeria, France and elsewhere.
But police fear some worshippers are being drawn into extremist groups, and have had the mosque -- as well as its cleric -- under surveillance for months.
Al-Masri, who lost both hands and an eye fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, has referred to Britain as "the land of the enemies of Islam."
The United States says al-Masri belongs to the Islamic Army of Aden, a group that claimed responsibility for a 2000 suicide bombing of the warship USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors.
The cleric, who denies any involvement in violence and says he is only a spokesman for political causes, has had British citizenship since 1985. British law protects him from extradition to Yemen to face charges for his alleged role in the attack.
Britain's charity watchdog has ordered him to give up his pulpit at the mosque because of his "inflammatory and highly political" speeches.
Police said Monday's raid was not connected to the removal order, which al-Masri has appealed.
Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes, reportedly attended the mosque. So did Zacharias Moussaoui, who has been charged with conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, and Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian who French investigators say plotted in 2001 to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris.