Monday, March 9, 2009

Soldiers shot dead hours before Afghan mission

THE Real IRA last night claimed responsibility for the ambush that killed two soldiers and seriously injured four other people outside a barracks in Northern Ireland.

The soldiers were wearing desert fatigues and were just hours from leaving for Afghanistan when they were gunned down outside the Massereene Barracks in Antrim.

They were ambushed by two terrorists firing automatic rifles as they were about to take delivery of pizzas before catching a flight to Helmand. Two other soldiers and the two pizza delivery men were wounded.The Real IRA was the organisation behind the bomb attack in Omagh, Co Tyrone, in August 1998 in which 29 people died, including a woman pregnant with twins.Security chiefs believe the gunmen were prepared to murder all six victims in front of the main gates of the barracks.

At one stage the killers stood over their victims and fired a second volley.

The Real IRA "South Antrim unit" claimed responsibility in a phone call to Dublin's Sunday Tribune newspaper.In a statement, the paper said:

"The caller said he made no apologies for targeting British soldiers while they continued to occupy Ireland and also said he made no apologies for targeting the pizza delivery men who, he said, were collaborating with the British.

"Sir Hugh Orde, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who had earlier called in undercover soldiers to carry out surveillance operations in a bid to thwart a rising threat against his officers, ruled out putting troops back on Northern Ireland's streets.

But the planning and execution of this double murder after a series of failed attacks over the past two years will surely mean an immediate and urgent review of security measures.

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, insisted the killings would not disrupt the peace process. He branded the attack "cowardly", adding:

"Our first priority has always been the safety of people in Northern Ireland, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that Northern Ireland is safe and secure.

"No murderer will be able to derail the peace process, which has the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland."However, the Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson, and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, have delayed a visit to the United States that was due to end next Tuesday with a St Patrick's Day meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Mr McGuinness, a Sinn Fein MP, said:

"I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now. The people responsible for last night's incident are clearly signalling that they want to resume or re-start that war. Well, I deny their right to do that.

"I will stand for all democrats against attempts to plunge us back into conflict; to see soldiers on the streets; more checkpoints on the roads; houses being raided and people being dragged back to interrogation centres. Those days are over. They can never come back again.

"The soldiers are the first to be murdered in Northern Ireland since Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was killed by an IRA sniper in 1997.

Last night, Northern Ireland's most senior soldier, Brigadier George Norton, said:

"These young Sappers were making their homes in Northern Ireland and spent the past number of months undergoing intense pre- deployment training. With only hours to go before flying to Afghanistan they were going to share a meal together.

"Many of their colleagues and friends are already in Afghanistan facing a dangerous and difficult six months tour. Indeed, the professionalism of soldiers who immediately gave first aid on the scene undoubtedly saved lives.

"A massive man-hunt was underway for the two masked gunmen and their driver who launched the attack in front of the main gates of Massereene Barracks, home to 38 Engineer Regiment, shortly before 10pm on Saturday.

The names of the dead soldiers have been withheld until all their relatives have been informed. One of the pizza delivery men wounded in the shooting was named as Anthony Watson, 19, who lives in the Antrim area. He is currently in hospital; his condition is being described as "serious". The condition of the second man, a 32-year-old Pole, is critical. Both worked for Domino's at Church Street, Antrim.

According to police, the gunmen were aware that soldiers at the barracks followed a regular routine on Saturday nights when as many as 20 separate orders were made for pizza to be delivered. The terrorists waited until the troops emerged through the gates to pick up the food. The first burst of automatic fire was followed by another just seconds later as the six men lay wounded on the ground. Police confirmed yesterday that they are examining a vehicle abandoned in the nearby town of Randalstown.

The car was left at around 11pm on Saturday night; police are investigating whether it was the vehicle used by the gunmen.Security chiefs had warned for months that dissident republicans were determined to inflict fatalities. Five police officers, two of them off duty, were wounded in separate gun and bomb attacks in Londonderry and Dungannon and near Castlederg, both in Co Tyrone. There has also been a series of failed bomb attacks.

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