emergency vehicles
© Sinead Lynch/AFP/Getty Images
Emergency vehicles similar to these are suspected of having been purchased at auctions for use as suicide bomber vehicles.
London - MI5 have warned Britain's cash-strapped National Health Services that dozens of ambulances - along with old police cars and fire engines past their sell-by date - are being snapped up by al-Qaeda operatives in the United Kingdom to mount suicide bomb attacks.

So serious is the problem that counter-terrorism officials at the Home Office have written to eBay, the Internet auctioneer, asking them to stop selling emergency service vehicles, equipment and uniforms.

But eBay has insisted it can only halt the sales if a new law is passed by Parliament. That could take many months to enact.

The use of ambulances is of particular concern to Britain's terrorist chiefs. They say the tactic has already been used in Iraq with devastating effects.

A report by Lord Carlisle - the government terrorist czar who last month warned about the possibility of private planes being used for an attack on London - has been issued to all of Britain's 48 police forces warning of the danger of selling-off emergency service vehicles.

Lord Carlisle, who works closely with the Terrorism Analysis Centre in London set up since the 9/11 attacks, said ambulances were the ideal weapon of choice for terrorists.

"It is almost rare that police will stop such vehicles on suspicious grounds. An ambulance rigged with high explosives could drive into any ultra-sensitive target like a nuclear power station or even Whitehall", said a senior MI5 source.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that the risk could be "highly significant" if the law is not tightened.

Every year dozens of police cars, ambulances and even fire engines are sold on eBay for as little as £1,500 ($2,230).

Many are still in working order. Those that need repair can be easily fixed to pass as genuine emergency service vehicles.

"An ambulance could carry half a ton of explosives. A rigged police car could carry half that amount. So could a fire engine", states the MI5 report.

MI5 counter-terrorism officers say such attacks have been successfully carried out in Iraq and Israel.

The report reveals that an al-Qaeda attack in Baghdad last February involved a stolen ambulance, which was driven by a suicide bomber into an Iraqi police station.

The report states: "Terrorists have been using ambulances to transport bombs in Israel since at least 2002. The Israelis have told us that Hamas are using ambulances to ferry men and rocket launchers around Gaza".

A national security committee has been set up in London with MI5 and police chiefs drawing up plans to deal with the threat. Chairman of the committee, Steve Watts, said: "There is a need of urgent legislation becoming available to the police which adequately addresses the threat of pseudo-emergency service vehicles being used by terrorists".

Lord Carlisle has suggested all service vehicles to be sold must be clearly decommissioned so they cannot be used to imitate emergency services.

Manufacturers of all such vehicles are being asked to urgently inspect vehicles taken out of service to see how this can be done.