Preston was put on a nine-hour security alert on one of the busiest shopping days of the year - because of a crude device containing an asthma inhaler and a firelighter.
A bomb disposal team raced to the Fishergate Centre after the incendiary went off in a toilet yesterday morning.
Flames were extinguished by a member of the public and no-one was hurt. But later police revealed the device was nothing more than an asthma inhaler, a firelighter, matches and toilet paper.
Officers have released CCTV footage of a man they would like to speak to about the incident. He is seen walking up an escalator in the nearby St George’s Shopping Centre 40 minutes before the device went off.
The man was wearing a dark jacket, dark gloves, jeans and a dark woolen hat. He was carrying a plastic bag.
Specialist ordnance disposal officers, who made a 50-mile dash from their base in Chester under police escort, deployed a remote controlled robot called Cutlass to search the Fishergate complex.
Police who cordoned the building off, later revealed they believed the device had been planted deliberately with the intention of endangering life.
The alarm was raised just after 9am yesterday when the device ignited and was quickly extinguished by a member of the public. Centre staff ordered a full evacuation while police threw a tight security cordon around the building next to the city’s railway station. Roads were closed and traffic diverted.
DCI Jill Johnston said: “We are keen to speak to the man in this CCTV as we believe he could have information which could assist us.
“We are treating this as a criminal investigation and while the motivation for this incident remains unclear at this stage, we believe this device has been left there deliberately and did have the potential to cause serious injury if it had exploded.
“I would appeal to anyone who recognises this man, or who has any other information which could assist, to get in touch with us.”
Officers examined CCTV footage in the centre and in other stores around Fishergate and later released pictures of the man.
Keith Mitchell, Fishergate Centre manager, said: “The safety of our customers, colleagues and staff is paramount and staff carried out our evacuation procedure calmly and efficiently.”
We are liaising with the police and working with them to get the shopping centre reopened and back to normal as soon as possible.”