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Security alert at another Kent cathedral

RROCHESTER was plunged into panic today after a suspect package was discovered in the cathedral. It happened less than a day after Canterbury Cathedral was evacuated following a security alert there after a man was seen sprinkling white powder on the floor.

In Rochester, the suspect package was found by staff just before 9am, leading to a massive emergency services operation. But residents and traders who had been evacuated were allowed to return to their homes and businesses at about 3pm when the operastion was scaled down.

MEarlier members of the bomb squad joined police, ambulance and fire crews in ccordoning off the area around the cathedral and investigating the bomb threat. Local businesses, churches and pubs were also evacuated and the area between the High Street and St Margaret's Street was cordoned off by police. Parts of Kings School closest to the cathedral were also sealed off and Rochester Castle was closed to the public.

Ward councillor Sue Haydock, who works at St Nicholas Church next to the cathedral said: "This is a very worrying situation with the obvious connection with the problems in Afghanistan and the Middle East."

Chris Stone, spokesman for the Rochester Diocese, said: "A suspect package has been found inside the cathedral. The area was evacuated but no-one knows how long the package has been there for."

By 10.40am bomb disposal experts had sent in a "barrow" - a remote control vehicle with a camera, a mechanical arm and a shotgun-type device to carry out a controlled explosion if necessary. The vehicle was controlled by an ammunition technical officer sitting in an Army vehicle at the top of Boley Hill.

Ken Shave, registrar of Kings School, said: "We normally have a Monday morning service at the cathedral but this time we were obviously prevented from holding it. The parts of our school closest to the cathedral were out of bounds. The pupils have reacted very sensibly and taken it all in their stride. They know only too well what happened in Canterbury and are aware of current events."

Kent Police said tests had found the powder left at Canterbury Cathedral contained no harmful substances and the cathedral would reopen today.

KENT police said today that tests were being carried out on a white powder sprinkled on the floor of a Canterbury Cathedral by a man of Arab appearance. A major alert began yesterday when hundreds of visitors and worshippers were evacuated from the building.

A mobile incident unit, several police officers and firefighters were mobilised as were paramedic teams amid fears the powder was harmful. It has been sent away for analysis but is said to be "non-harmful".

Police were advising those who had been in the cathedral to contact their GP or local hospital if they felt unwell. The man was spotted acting suspiciously in the Crypt by a member of the public who alerted staff just before 1pm yesterday.

The fears were sparked amid a background of growing tension after the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the anthrax outbreak in America.

A Kent police spokeswoman said: "The man was spotted but no citizen's arrest was made. When police arrived he could not be found. We are actively searching for him. We do not want to jump to any conclusions at this stage."

Services were cancelled, including the Canterbury Festival evensong, but the concert in the Education Centre did go ahead. King's School students were still able to enter the grounds.

Cathedral spokesman Christopher Robinson said: "Obviously public safety is paramount so this was reported to the authorities.

"We are sorry for any disturbance particularly to the congregation but we are very mindful of public safety and occasionally that does have to cause inconvenience. We have to assume the worst until proved otherwise. Regrettably that can cause disruption sometimes."

Mr Robinson said he hoped the incident would not have too great an effect on visitor numbers, which were already falling.

"It's a wonderful building and it's a place for people to come and reflect. I hope people will put it in perspective."

The Archdeacon of Canterbury, the Ven John Pritchard, said: "We recognise that a place of such symbolic significance is going to have to share the pain of many other important places around this country and the United States."

The cathedral would always attract some people who wanted to disrupt civil life, he said.

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