Thursday, April 2, 2009

DUBLIN (AP) - Northern Ireland police arrested a 19-year-old man Thursday on suspicion of gunning down two British soldiers last month, the first such slayings in more than a decade of peacemaking.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said the suspected IRA dissident was arrested in the overwhelmingly Irish Catholic village of Bellaghy. He faced interrogation over the March 7 attack on off-duty, unarmed soldiers who were collecting pizzas outside an army base. Two died and four others, including two pizza couriers, were wounded in a hail of bullets fired by two masked men.

Members and supporters of Irish Republican Army dissidents have staged more than a dozen car hijackings and bomb hoaxes this week across Northern Ireland, and also tossed Molotov cocktails at a Protestant community hall in Belfast, in hopes of raising communal tensions to breaking point.

On Thursday, British army explosives experts used remote-controlled robots to investigate two suspicious objects that had been left near a Protestant state school on the edge of Catholic west Belfast and a nearby gymnasium in a Catholic area. Police declared them both to be hoax bombs containing no explosives.

So far, leaders of both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community have united against the dissidents and no other paramilitary group has joined the violence. But police say one of the dissidents’ goals is to provoke outlawed Protestant groups to break their own 1994 cease-fire with a retaliatory attack against the Catholic community.

Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, said leaders of illegal Protestant paramilitary groups deserved credit for not taking the IRA dissidents’ bait.

“We should give them the recognition here they deserve. They actually acted with proper leadership qualities. They went out into their communities and said: ‘Do not respond. Do not take a life for a life,’” Woodward said.

The Northern Ireland police commander, Chief Constable Hugh Orde, briefed a Catholic-Protestant panel of politicians in Belfast about his force’s efforts to hunt down the dissidents attacking Northern Ireland’s 16-year-old peace process.

A splinter group called the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the gun attack on the army base. The victims _ army engineers aged 21 and 23 who were only hours away from beginning a tour of duty in Afghanistan _ were the first soldiers killed in Northern Ireland since the IRA cease-fire of 1997.

Bellaghy is the power base of prominent dissident figure Declan McGlinchey, who was arrested last month and questioned about the March 7 attack but released without charge. He is the son of Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey, a former commander of an IRA breakaway group who was assassinated by colleagues in front of his son in 1994.

Police last week charged another prominent Irish republican, Colin Duffy, with murdering the two soldiers. Duffy previously was acquitted on charges of murdering the IRA’s last two victims before its cease-fire, a pair of Protestant policemen on foot patrol who were shot through the back of the head at close range in June 1997.

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