British police on Tuesday released nine mostly Pakistani men arrested in a major anti-terror operation, a spokeswoman said, handing them over to immigration officials who vowed to deport them.
Police had been questioning the men, aged between 22 and 38, over an alleged al-Qaeda-linked plot ever since they were arrested in raids across northwest England on April 8.
They were released into the custody of the UK Border Agency, which controls immigration and said it would hold them until they could be deported.
“We are seeking to remove these individuals on grounds of national security,” an agency spokeswoman said.
“The government’s highest priority is to protect public safety. Where a foreign national poses a threat to this country we will seek to exclude or to deport, where this is appropriate,” she said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had said police were investigating a “major terrorist plot,” and police defended the arrests on Tuesday on the grounds of public safety.
“The northwest counterterrorism unit has released nine of those arrested as part of a national operation,” a police spokeswoman said.
“Protecting the public is the main focus of the police. These arrests were carried out after a number of UK agencies gathered information that indicated a potential risk to public safety,” she said.
Two men remained in police custody and the spokeswoman said the investigation was continuing.
Twelve men were originally arrested, among them 11 Pakistani nationals and a Briton. One man was released to the UK Border Agency three days later.
Brown’s government has come under pressure to strengthen its visa rules after it emerged that 10 of the Pakistani men were in Britain on student visas.
Relatives of the suspects in Pakistan had pleaded their innocence, and in a statement issued late on Tuesday, a British-based lawyer for three of the men said he would challenge any attempt to deport them.
“Our clients have no criminal history, they were here lawfully on student visas and all were pursuing their studies and working part-time,” said Mohammed Ayub, who is based in Bradford, northern England.
“Our clients are neither extremists nor terrorists. Their arrest and detention has been a very serious breach of their human rights,” he said.
The anti-terror raids had to be brought forward after Britain’s top counterterrorism policeman was photographed holding clearly legible briefing notes on the operation. He resigned over the gaffe.