POSTED: Friday, May 24, 2013 - 8:43am
UPDATED: Friday, May 24, 2013 - 11:44am
LONDON (CNN) — The family of the British soldier brutally slain in a cleaver attack in southeast London spoke movingly Friday of a man who was a devoted husband, father and brother, as well as a dedicated serviceman.
Stepfather Ian Rigby said Drummer Lee Rigby was a "precious gift" who had always wanted to serve in the army and was a devoted family man.
It was difficult accepting that his stepson died on home soil, he said.
When a soldier is serving in Afghanistan, "you come to terms with it," Ian Rigby said. "You don't expect something like that on your doorstep. It's very difficult."
"I just want to say that I love Lee, I always will, and I'm proud to be his wife," said Rebecca Rigby, sobbing. "He was a devoted father to our son, Jack, and we will both miss him terribly."
Her husband had been due to travel home from London to see them this weekend, she said.
In the capital's Woolwich neighborhood, where Rigby was slain Wednesday by two men who drove a car into him, then hacked him with knives and a cleaver, a bank of flowers left in tribute by members of the public swelled by the hour Friday.
One bouquet, propped in a pair of black army boots, reads: "RIP Brave Soldier. Dream sweet dreams. Remembered always and never forgotten. Our thoughts with you and your family."
Police are holding four suspects in connection with the case: those two men, hospitalized under guard after a confrontation with armed police in which they were shot, and two others arrested Thursday on suspicion of conspiracy to murder.
Friends, acquaintances and British media identified 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo, a British national of Nigerian descent, as the suspect seen in a gory video from the scene. The identities of the 22-year-old man seized with him and the two people arrested Thursday have not been released.
Since the brutal slaying, the outpouring of support for a charity that supports Britain's wounded military veterans, Help for Heroes, has been so great that its website has crashed.
Rigby, a 25-year-old machine gunner, drummer and father of a 2-year-old boy, was wearing a Help for Heroes T-shirt when he was attacked in Woolwich, according to witnesses.
Help for Heroes said Friday it had been "overwhelmed with people spontaneously showing their support for the Armed Forces" since the news broke.
"Our website is struggling to cope with this overwhelming reaction from the British public, some of whom are choosing to buy T-shirts and hoodies," said a statement from the charity.
"This sudden surge of interest in the work we're doing to help the wounded and their families has taken us completely by surprise. We just want to help, and all funds we receive will be used to provide direct, practical support to those affected by their service to our country."
Tears and flowers
Many of those who laid flowers on the road near an army barracks in Woolwich where Rigby was killed were emotional as they paid tribute not just to him, but to the contribution of all British servicemen and women.
A note signed by two army cadets, reads: "I understand the great lengths you would have gone to to protect our British people. It's a huge disappointment to hear the way people have treated you in your own country."
One elderly man, using a cane, had tears in his eyes as he walked, shaking his head, up and down the flowers for half an hour. He removed his hat, looked to the heavens and made the sign of the cross.
A group of teenagers came together to light tea lights for the fallen soldier.
Another woman, loudly sobbing, asked police officers standing by the growing array of tributes: "Why did this happen, why did this happen here? My children go to the school just there."
A man sharply dressed in a suit and tie brought his toddler son to drop off flowers, each placing their blooms next to the army boots. The father took a moment to look at the boots in silence and then reached down to hug his son, tears filling his eyes.
A Nigerian woman who came to lay flowers told CNN she was angry that the media is referencing suspect Adebolajo's Nigerian roots. "He is nothing to do with Nigeria, nothing to do with us," she said, adding that the incident was "barbaric."
One note referred to both a quote by the late Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and comments made by one of the attackers, saying: "An eye for an eye makes the world go blind."
Another had a more sinister message. Attached to a wooden cross adorned with a red poppy, the symbol of remembrance for the British armed forces, it read: "Your passing shall be avenged."
There's been no indication that Rigby knew the men who attacked him with meat cleavers Wednesday afternoon.
One of the two, who approached a man filming the gory scene in the Woolwich neighborhood, suggested that Rigby had been targeted only "because Muslims are dying daily" at the hands of British troops like him.
"We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," he said in the video aired by CNN affiliate ITN.
Britain's armed forces have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. All its combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Dramatic video footage obtained by Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper, filmed from an apartment block overlooking the street, shows the moment when armed police arrived at the scene.
One of the attackers rushes at the police vehicle brandishing knives while the other aims a gun. Both are brought down by a volley of shots.
The firearms unit was called in after the initial alert because British police do not usually carry weapons. Witnesses remarked that the two attackers appeared to wait for the armed police to arrive, nearly 15 minutes after their assault on Rigby.
The two injured suspects spent Thursday in stable condition at separate South London hospitals.
Even with those two suspected attackers under guard, authorities pressed for answers, seeking to determine if others might have been somehow involved and, if so, why.
Six residences have been searched, and two people -- a man and a woman, both of them age 29 -- were arrested Thursday on "suspicion of conspiracy to murder," London's Metropolitan Police said Thursday.
"This is a large, complex and fast-moving investigation which continues to develop," added police.
The attack, which Prime Minister David Cameron and others called an act of terror, stirred anxiety and alerts in Britain not seen since the summer of 2005, when coordinated bomb attacks struck London's public transport network.
An additional 1,200 police are now on London's streets to reassure the public, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Crime and Operations Mark Rowley said Thursday. Extra security is in place for military personnel and sites.
Abu Barra blamed Wednesday's attack not on his friend Michael Adebolajo -- who he says is the bloody, cleaver-wielding man shown talking in the ITN video -- but on the British government and predicted there may be more attacks.
"As long as (British) foreign policy is engaging in violence, they're only inviting violence in retaliation," Barra told CNN.
By sharp contrast, Cameron said that "the fault lies solely with sickening individuals who carried out this attack," adding that "nothing in Islam ... justifies this truly dreadful act."
"This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life; it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country."
Suspect knew British Muslim radical leader
It is understood that the two people suspected of carrying out the knife attack were known to Britain's domestic security service. They had featured in previous investigations into other people, but were not themselves under surveillance.
Barra said Adebolajo converted to Islam and became passionate about his faith.
British Muslim radical leader Anjem Choudary told CNN on Thursday that he knew Adebolajo, noting that the suspect attended demonstrations and a few lectures organized by Choudary's group Al-Muhajiroun.
In fact, an ITN video from April 2007 shows Adebolajo standing behind Choudary at a rally protesting the arrest of men who allegedly made inflammatory speeches inside a mosque.
Barra described his friend as a "very caring" man who "just wanted to help everybody." He was also "very vocal" about his feelings that Muslims were being oppressed, injustices he pinned, in part, on the British government.
"I wasn't surprised that it happened," Barra said of Wednesday's attack. "... Britain is only responsible, the government. And I believe all of us, as a public, we are responsible. We should condemn ourselves, why we did not do enough to stop these wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The Woolwich bloodshed spurred concerns not only about violence by Islamic extremists, but also about attacks targeting Muslims by people angered by Rigby's killing.
"People can only take so much. And people will break," said Victor Easdown, a construction worker who heard shots ring out in Woolwich as police took on Rigby's attackers.
In Kent, police arrested a man on suspicion of "racially aggravated criminal damage" at a religious building. And on Wednesday night in Essex, a man with two knives was arrested after throwing a smoke grenade at the Al Falah Braintree Islamic Center and demanding someone come outside to answer to the Woolwich slaying, said the mosque's secretary, Sikander Sleemy.
Members of the far-right English Defence League clashed with police late Wednesday, with a tweet from its official account touting that "it's fair to say that finally the country is waking up!:-) NO SURRENDER!"
"Don't listen to the Government cover ups, The lies about Islam being peaceful," read another EDL tweet Thursday.
Political and social commentator Mohammed Ansar appealed for "a sense of calm (and) perspective" after what he called "a really, really heinous act of, I would say, criminality, ... not terrorism."
"What we don't need are knee-jerk reactions ... to really ratchet up tensions and really stoke and inflame anxieties within communities," he told CNN.
CNN's Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London, where Atika Shubert and Florence Davey-Attlee also reported. CNN's Greg Botelho, Dan Rivers, Jonathan Wald, Carol Jordan, Atika Shubert, Erin McLaughlin and Richard Allen Greene contributed to this report.
The-CNN-Wire/Atlanta/+1-404-827-WIRE(9473)CNN's Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London, where Atika Shubert and Florence Davey-Attlee also reported. CNN's Greg Botelho, Dan Rivers, Jonathan Wald, Carol Jordan, Atika Shubert, Erin McLaughlin and Richard Allen Greene contributed to this report.
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