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Northern Ireland village evacuated as IRA dissidents leave bomb in van outside police base

DUBLIN (AP) — British Army experts defused a 300-pound (135-kilogram) bomb left by Irish Republican Army dissidents in a van outside the police station in a Northern Ireland border village on Friday, police said.

IRA dissidents opposed to Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord and the Catholic-Protestant government it spawned have planted a string of car bombs in the British territory since January. Most have failed to detonate, and none has caused any serious injuries.

The latest threat in the village of Aughnacloy, 70 miles (110 kms) northwest of Dublin, forced authorities to evacuate about 350 residents overnight and close the local school.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin condemned the IRA splinter groups as "reckless and cowardly" and called on them to "disband immediately."

Police Superintendent Brian Kee said his officers still were evacuating locals to church and community halls when a 60-minute advance warning — telephoned to a Belfast newspaper using the dissidents' confidential code word — expired.

"An hour sounds like a long time, but when you have to evacuate 350 people it's a very short period of time. We were still evacuating people when the hour was up," Kee said. "If the bomb had detonated it would have caused widespread devastation in the village and it's very likely that lives would have been lost."

Residents said the attackers left the van's doors open and the engine running. Irish police later found the attackers' getaway car abandoned and burned out — to destroy forensic evidence — across the border in the Republic of Ireland.

Sinn Fein, the Catholic-backed party that supported the IRA's failed 1970-1997 to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, criticized the dissidents for adopting hopeless tactics.

"Their actions are no part of a campaign to bring about Irish unity and they have little or no popular support," said Michelle Gildernew, the Sinn Fein politician who holds a British Parliament seat that includes Aughnacloy. Sinn Fein refuses to take its five parliamentary seats in London.

British and Irish security officials say members of the two principal splinter groups, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, are working together in this year's car-bomb attacks.