IPSWICH, England (AP) – Fear gripped this provincial port Wednesday after the slayings of five prostitutes, as police hunted for a suspected serial killer and the city offered a shuttle service for all women.

Prime Minister Tony Blair extended condolences to the victims’ families – a gesture that would have been unheard of three decades ago when the so-called Yorkshire Ripper killed 13 women, most of them prostitutes.

“We support the police fully in dealing with the horror of this situation and also with the entirely understandable fear there is in the community,” Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday in an address that prompted a debate over changing policies on prostitution. Some legislators suggested legalizing brothels to make work safer for prostitutes.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told the British Broadcasting Corp. the killings were not about prostitution.

“I think what we are reminded of quite simply, in the last couple of days, is that every one of these young women is someone’s daughter and someone’s child and they are human beings who have been very vulnerable and who are made very vulnerable by aspects of our society that need to change.”

City authorities and local businesses organized shuttle services to transport women home from work, and the council’s monthly newsletter published a safety message advising women not to walk the streets alone. “Stick together,” it said.

Some businesses also offered female workers special hand-held alarms.

“How is that going to stop someone trying to kill you?” asked Sally Townsend, 55, who works at Marks & Spencer and walks to her job each morning in the darkness that envelops this eastern English city in winter. Once inside the store, she calls her husband to tell him she’s safe.

“We live in total fear,” she told The Associated Press.

The victims, whose naked bodies were discovered over 10 days within a few miles of each other, were all prostitutes. Still, residents saw a more general threat. “Where next?” one newspaper headline said Wednesday.

“Suffolk Strangler,” said another, referring to one of the victims who was found strangled.

“The mood is dark,” said shopkeeper Pat Chamberlain. “You can see it in the faces of the customers. Although they’re shopping, in the backs of their minds, they’re thinking about it.”

The victims included a trainee beautician, a mother of three daughters and an insurance worker. Some fell into prostitution to support drug habits.

Two bodies have yet to be identified but one was thought to be that of 24-year-old Paula Clennell, who was interviewed on television last week and said she was scared but determined to get back on the street because she needed money for heroin. Days later she vanished.

Another was thought to be Annette Nicholls, a prostitute who was recently reported missing, according to Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull.

Malcolm Moses, a taxi driver who used to drive prostitutes in the 1970s from the city’s red light district to sailors in the river port, said the slayings were “all we can think about.”

“It doesn’t matter to us if they’re prostitutes. It’s still somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother,” he said.

Ipswich, a city of about 120,000 located some 70 miles northeast of London, used to be a bustling River Orwell port in the 19th century. There were nearly 40 brothels in the red light district at the time, but these days prostitutes ply their trade on a quiet road lined by red-brick houses in the shadow of the town’s main soccer stadium.

Police were working their way through a list of potential suspects Wednesday and investigating more than 2,000 calls made to a hot line.

The News of the World, a British tabloid, offered a $493,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest.

Before the slayings, about 40 prostitutes worked the street, said Hannah Besley, a town official. “It’s now got to such a critical stage that they are terrified and last night it was very quiet,” she said.

Police have been able to determine the cause of death in only one of the five slayings. Anneli Alderton, 24, whose body was discovered in a wooded area Sunday, had been strangled, Gull said.

The cause of death of 25-year-old Gemma Adams and 19-year-old Tania Nicol was still unclear. Forensics on their bodies have been hampered because both were found in water.

Clennell’s father, Brian, said he didn’t know his daughter had worked as a prostitute and that he was “going through hell.”

“I never knew that she lived the life that she did,” Clennell told the British Broadcasting Corp. “Somebody out there must know, somebody that’s doing this. He’s sick, he’s got to be caught. It could be somebody’s father, it could be somebody’s uncle, it could be anybody.”

AP-ES-12-13-06 1540EST

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