British Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed Monday that Irish Republican Army dissidents responsible for killing two soldiers will not be permitted to escape justice or undermine the Catholic-Protestant government at the heart of the peace process.
Brown paid a visit to the army barracks west of Belfast where the Real IRA splinter group gunned down two soldiers, and wounded two other soldiers and two pizza deliverymen, on Saturday. Then he met Northern Ireland's police chief and the senior figures in the power-sharing government.
Brown said the two gunmen and their getaway driver "have got to be hunted down and brought to justice as quickly as possible."
"What the people of Northern Ireland are building together ... no one, no murderer, no terrorist should be allowed to destroy," he said.
The British premier insisted that the Real IRA had mounted its attack in a desperate, last-ditch bid to keep the 22-month-old coalition of British Protestants and Irish Catholics from taking root. The dissidents were already too late, he said.
"This attack has not happened because of the failure of the political process. It's in many ways because of the success of the political process, that people are working together and a small number of people want to disrupt something that is working — something that is showing the whole world that Northern Ireland stands together," he said.
Earlier Monday, the British Army commander in Northern Ireland vowed that his troops would continue to lead normal lives despite what were the first slayings of British security forces here in 12 years.
Brigadier George Norton, who oversees more than 4,000 Northern Ireland-based soldiers, said his men and women were shocked and angered by the deadly return of dissident IRA violence — but were determined to remain focused on training for overseas missions, especially Afghanistan.
The British defense ministry identified the two slain soldiers as Cengiz Azimkar, 21, from London, and Mark Quinsey, 23, from the midlands English city of Birmingham.
The shooting by the Real IRA splinter group — which opposes the IRA cease-fire and the power-sharing it promoted — also wounded two other soldiers and the two pizza couriers: a 19-year-old Antrim resident and a 32-year-old Polish immigrant. All were reported in serious but stable condition Monday at Antrim Area General Hospital.
Norton said the two soldiers slain and two others wounded "were off duty, they were unarmed, and they were dressed in desert combats to deploy overseas. ... The military community in general is of course shocked by the brutality of the attack."
Norton said he had spoken by phone with the dead men's regimental commander in Afghanistan, where the victims had been destined to travel Sunday for the start of a half-year tour.
The general emphasized that he was not willing to restrict his soldiers' lives, which include living in local homes and dining out — nor did he plan to return them to patrolling in Northern Ireland again.
"We will continue to live in Northern Ireland as part of the community, as we have done since 2007 and as we do in Great Britain. We will not be deterred from our primary role of preparing and training for operations overseas," he said.
Norton said private, armed security guards at the Massereene base gates acted appropriately, rejecting media criticism that they failed to return fire at the IRA dissidents armed with assault rifles.
"Are you suggesting that people should have fired into a closely packed group, including my soldiers?" Norton said, suggesting that the guards did not have a clear line of fire.
An Irish newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, said it received a claim of responsibility in a phone call from the Real IRA splinter group. The newspaper said the caller, who used a code word to verify he was authorized to speak for the outlawed gang, defended the shooting and described the delivery men as "collaborators of British rule in Ireland."
The Real IRA was responsible for the deadliest terror attack in Northern Ireland history, a 1998 car bombing of the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, mostly women and children.