The five Algerian men arrested Friday over a potential plot to harm the pope worked as cleaners in London and were about to start work on streets near where the Pontiff was due later in the day.
Sky News reported that the men were contractors for the environmental services company Veolia, and were detained at the company’s headquarters in the Westminster area of the British capital.
The men were about to leave the headquarters to start their day shift when police swooped.
Dr. Leith Penny, Westminster City Council’s Director for City Management, confirmed that the men worked for Veolia Environmental Services, which employ 650 “on-street staff to keep Westminster’s streets clean and free from rubbish.”
She added: “Veolia and Westminster City Council work closely with the relevant authorities to constantly ensure that all the people working on their behalf are subject to right to work checks as prescribed by the Home Office to assess their eligibility to work in the country.”
She continued; “We are confident that these checks are robust and we will continue to work with the police and other authorities during this investigation.”
Earlier Friday, a spokesman for Pope Benedict XVI said the Pontiff was “calm” and “happy” following the arrests.
“We are totally calm. The pope is happy with the trip,” Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office, told reporters.
He continued, “What we know is not much more than you know, but we can say that we are properly confident in the work of the police and Scotland Yard. The police have already said that there is no need to change the program of the pope.”
The men — aged 26, 27, 36, 40 and 50 — were detained by Scotland Yard detectives about 5.45am local time at a business address in central London “on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
Sky News reported that the detained men were Arabs, and more specifically of Algerian origin.
The Catholic Church in the U.K. quickly responded to the arrests, saying that the church also had “absolute confidence” in the security operation to protect the pope.
“We have absolute confidence in the security operation to protect both the Pope and the public,” a spokesperson from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said in a statement.
The statement continued, “The Pope is enjoying a wonderful visit, warmly welcomed wherever he goes. This morning [Friday] he has met with school children at the ‘Big Assembly’ and faith leaders from across the country at the multi faith event.”
The five men were taken to a central London police station to be interviewed by detectives from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Counter Terrorism Command.
Police were searching the business premises Friday, as well as residential premises in north and east London. Police said initial searches failed to uncover any hazardous items.
“Today’s [Friday’s] arrests were made after police received information. Following initial inquiries by detectives a decision was made to arrest the five men,” the Scotland Yard statement continued.
The arrests led to a review of the Pope’s security arrangements, but police were “satisfied that our current policing plan remains appropriate.”
Anti-terror police carried out a security sweep of Lambeth Palace — where the pope was due to meet Dr. Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England later.
The Pope’s itinerary was not changed and there was no change to the U.K. terror threat level.
The security operation to protect the Pope during his trip was expected to cost about £1.5 million ($2.3 million).
London’s Metropolitan Police Fixated Threat Assessment Center (FTAC) has been monitoring people who they believe could threaten the pope’s safety, including people suffering from mental instability.
Officers coordinated with the Vatican to discuss security arrangements for the pope’s visit.
The task was complicated by the Pontiff’s varied itinerary, which includes many sites around the U.K.
Five Street Cleaners Held Over ‘Pope Plot’
Five street cleaners have been arrested over a potential threat to the Pope, Sky News sources say.
Armed counter-terror officers swooped on the central London agency to which they were registered in the early hours of the morning.
The suspects, who are aged 26, 27, 36, 40 and 50, are being held and questioned under the Terrorism Act 2000.
The firm where the arrests were made is now being searched, as well as homes in north and east London.
Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt said he understood the men were North Africans employed by the agency to work for Westminster City Council.
He said they had been about to start a day shift that would have included cleaning streets around the House of Commons, where the Pope is due to speak, when they were arrested.
Brunt said: “I was at a briefing last week around the whole issue of the Pope’s security and the point was made then that there was no known threat or intelligence to suggest a plot against the Pope.
“What the police are dealing with today is something that has cropped up in the last 24 hours.”
Dr Leith Penny, Westminster City Council’s director for city management, said: “The UK’s security is obviously of critical importance and can never be taken for granted and so our congratulations must go to the police authorities for their swift action today.
“While police investigations are ongoing and no charges have been brought, we can confirm that the people at the centre of the investigation work for one of our contractors, Veolia Environmental Services, who employ 650 on-street staff to keep Westminster’s streets clean and free from rubbish.
“Veolia and Westminster City Council work closely with the relevant authorities to constantly ensure that all the people working on their behalf are subject to right to work checks as prescribed by the Home Office to assess their eligibility to work in the country.
“We are confident that these checks are robust and we will continue to work with the police and other authorities during this investigation.”
The Pope was told of the arrests this morning, but a spokesman for the Vatican confirmed the itinerary would not change.
“We are calm, the Pope is happy and we go on with the same joy we have had until now,” he said.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: “Initial searches have not uncovered any hazardous items.
“Today’s arrests were made after police received information. Following initial inquiries by detectives, a decision was made to arrest the five men.
“Following today’s arrests the policing arrangements for the Papal visit were reviewed and we are satisfied that our current policing plan remains appropriate.”
A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said: “We have absolute confidence in the security operation to protect both the Pope and the public.
“The Pope is enjoying a wonderful visit, warmly welcomed wherever he goes.”
UPDATE: A sixth man — a 29-year-old — has been arrested at his home … no other details were immediately available.