DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland police stopped an Irish Republican Army splinter group from firing mortar shells at a police station in an attack that could have killed both officers and nearby civilians, a senior officer said Monday. Detectives interrogated three men suspected of involvement.
Police tracking the attackers' movements rammed the minivan containing four mortar tubes and shells as it drove into Northern Ireland's second-largest city, Londonderry, on Sunday night. They arrested the minivan driver, a motorcyclist trailing the minivan, and another man in a follow-up search of a home linked to the mortars' construction and storage.
More than 100 homes were evacuated overnight as British Army experts using a remote-controlled robot defused the four shells, which officers said were ready to be fired. Had they been launched, it would have been the first vehicle-based mortar attack in Northern Ireland since 1994 when the Provisional IRA, inventor of the homemade weapons systems, began an open-ended cease-fire.
Police Chief Superintendent Stephen Cargin said he was certain that IRA die-hards would have fired the shells at one of Londonderry's fortified police stations within minutes had they not been stopped. During the operation, a police vehicle rammed the minivan but no shots were fired. The mortars were positioned to be hidden from view, with the shells fired through a specially cut hole in the roof.
Cargin didn't specify whether the weapon was designed to be fired using a timer or a remote-control switch, both of which have been used in IRA mortar attacks in decades past. The minivan appeared to have been driven from across the nearby Republic of Ireland border in County Donegal, barely 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, because the minivan had Donegal license plates.
No group claimed responsibility, but IRA splinter groups opposed to Northern Ireland's peace agreement are particularly active in the predominantly Irish Catholic city. Cargin and the city's leading politicians said they had no doubt that an IRA faction was to blame.
All noted that the kind of homemade mortars deployed had already been proven to fire shells with erratic trajectories and, particularly when fired in crowded urban areas could end up hitting nearby homes rather than the security target.
"The target may have been the police, but these four mortars could very easily have detonated at any time. There is a real sense of relief in the community that the police have prevented what could have been a terrible atrocity," said Brian Rea, chairman of a joint Catholic-Protestant panel that oversees Police Service of Northern Ireland operations.
"These are crude homemade devices. There is no way the people who planned their attack would have known they would have hit their target," Cargin said.
The mortar seizure offers yet more evidence that today's IRA activists retain some Provisional IRA weapons stockpiles and are tapping the Provisionals' engineering skills. Last week Belfast police seized a Soviet-era rocket launcher that was linked to the Provisional IRA's biggest weapons shipments from Libya in the mid-1980s, a consignment that was supposed to have been surrendered in full as part of the Provisional IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence.
The Provisionals' homemade bombs and mortars often were more destructive and lethal than smuggled military-grade weaponry. Its heaviest vehicle-mounted mortars struck both heavily fortified installations and high-security economic and political targets.
In 1985, the outlawed group dropped a mortar shell on a police barracks in the border town of Newry. The blast killed nine officers dining in the base's cafeteria.
In 1991, the Provisionals fired three mortar shells into the back yard of Downing Street, the official London residence of the British prime minister, during a Cabinet meeting. Nobody was hurt.
In 1994, three mortar attacks on the runways of Heathrow Airport shut down Europe's busiest air hub.