- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009


ANTRIM, Northern Ireland (AP) — Leaders of Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant government pledged to keep the peace Sunday after Irish Republican Army dissidents fatally shot two off-duty British soldiers meeting pizza deliverymen at a barracks entrance.

The two senior figures in the 22-month-old coalition postponed a U.S. trip and pledged to intensify their cooperation in response to the first deadly attack on British security forces in 12 years.

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Police said the gunmen opened fire from a car outside the base, then shot at least some victims at close range as they lay on the ground. Four soldiers were hit, two fatally. Also shot were the two deliverymen, a local teenager who was seriously wounded and a 32-year-old Polish immigrant who remained in critical condition Sunday night.

The Sunday Tribune newspaper said it received a claim of responsibility in a phone call from a man claiming to represent the Real IRA splinter group. The paper said the caller, who used a code word to verify he was a spokesman for the outlawed gang, defended the shooting and described the Domino’s Pizza workers 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.

The senior Catholic in the power-sharing coalition, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, said dissidents were trying to rekindle sectarian bloodshed and force Britain to resume sterner security policies.

Mr. McGuinness, a former IRA commander, said he and Protestant leaders were determined to ensure that sanity and political progress prevail against “absolutely futile” dissident violence.

First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant leader of the coalition, urged Protestant extremists not to retaliate against the Catholic community. Two outlawed Protestant groups, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, claim to have renounced violence but have refused to disarm — because they reserve the right to seek revenge for dissident IRA acts.

“Can I urge all of those who may be angry within the (pro-British) unionist community — this is a matter to be left entirely with the police and the authorities,” Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Robinson and Mr. McGuinness still expect to visit President Obama at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, when Northern Ireland leaders traditionally seek American political and economic support. But they canceled meetings scheduled to start Monday with several U.S. businesses operating in Northern Ireland.

Both sides vowed that the attack would not weaken power-sharing, the central accomplishment of the Good Friday peace accord. That U.S.-brokered 1998 pact sought to end three decades of violence over the British territory that claimed more than 3,700 lives. Such bloodshed has flowed to a trickle in recent years.

“We call on all parties in Northern Ireland to unequivocally reject such senseless acts of violence, whose intention is to destroy the peace that so many in Northern Ireland have worked so hard to achieve,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

Police Commander Hugh Orde, who had warned of an imminent dissident attack, said he was certain he could keep British troops off the streets, a key peacemaking achievement in force since 2007. More than 4,000 troops are based here but train exclusively for overseas deployments and are rarely seen in uniform in public.

Scores of Corps of Royal Engineers soldiers were hours from deploying to Afghanistan when they ordered pizzas from a Domino’s Pizza outlet, a normal Saturday night practice.

Two suspected IRA dissidents opened fire with assault rifles as four soldiers, already wearing their desert camouflage fatigues, collected pizzas from the two Domino’s workers outside the entrance of the Massereene army barracks in the town of Antrim, west of Belfast.

Police Chief Superintendent Derek Williamson, who is leading the hunt for the killers, said all six were believed to have been wounded during the initial volley of bullets. Then the gunmen got out of their vehicle and shot some again up close.

Police said the attackers must have noticed that unarmed soldiers were in the habit of walking to the base gates to collect fast-food orders. Commander Orde said the soldiers and deliverymen had no idea they were targets because Northern Ireland has become “a far more normal and safe place to live.”

Superintendent Williamson identified the two fatal victims as Royal Engineers in their early 20s but declined to reveal their names. The rest of their unit departed Sunday for Afghanistan after giving statements to police.

Police later found the attackers’ getaway vehicle in the nearby town of Randalstown. No arrests were reported.

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 in a failed effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. The IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, but splinter groups using a wide range of labels have tried to continue the campaign.

The dissidents have ratcheted up their violence since November 2007, when they shot two policemen in the face with shotgun blasts. Both survived. Several more police officers have been wounded in more than a dozen rocket, bomb and gun attacks since, but until Saturday, efforts to attack army installations had fizzled or been intecepted by police.

The Real IRA claim of responsibility appeared consistent with the splinter group’s recent threats to target civilians who conduct business with British security forces. For decades the IRA similarly reserved the right to kill anyone who worked or provided supplies for the police and soldiers.

Catholic and Protestant congregations in Antrim walked at midday from their churches to the scene of the killing, where police forensic specialists in white masks and boiler suits still were searching nearby ground for bullet fragments and casings.

Ministers from Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches took turns praying for the dead and wounded, for the IRA dissidents to give up, and for their often-bickering leaders to stay on a path to reconciliation.

“We don’t want those years of the past. They were horrible years for everyone,” a Catholic priest, the Rev. Tony Devlin, told the crowd of several hundred. “In our churches today many people were crying because of the experiences they remembered from the past. They do not want it to come back again.”

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