/ 8 March 2009

Two British soldiers killed in Northern Ireland attack

Gunmen struck at a British army base in one of Northern Ireland’s worst attacks since a 1998 peace deal on Saturday, killing two soldiers and seriously wounding four people, officials said. The attack followed a warning from Northern Ireland’s police chief this week that the threat from republican dissidents was at its highest for nearly a decade and reports that British special forces were back in the province to gather intelligence.

”This is a terrible reminder of the events of the past,” said Peter Robinson, leader of the province’s main Protestant party and head of its power-sharing government. He and other leading politicians vowed the gunmen would not succeed.

The 1998 peace deal ended 30 years of political and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in which more than 3 000 people were killed.

The Irish Republican Army, which sought a united Ireland and drew support from the minority Roman Catholic community, and pro-British Protestant guerrilla groups agreed to ceasefires.

British troops were stood down in the province in 2007, but sporadic violence has continued despite the peace deal. Until the past few months, much of it was attributed to criminal activities rather than political or sectarian motives.

In January, a large bomb was defused in Castlewellan, a town 50km south of Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast. A splinter republican group claimed responsibility for the bomb.

Britain and Ireland, joint mediators and driving forces behind the peace deal, both condemned Saturday’s attack at the Massereene base near the town of Antrim, 25km north-west of Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast.

”In recent days action has been taken to increase security in Northern Ireland,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office said in a statement.

”This is because of the increased threat from those who, even at this late stage, wish to ignore the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland and attempt to derail the peace process.”

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said: ”A tiny group of evil people cannot and will not undermine the will of the people … to live in peace together.”

Nationalist politicians reacted angrily this week to the reports that members of Britain’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, at the forefront of intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, had returned to the province.

Northern Ireland’s police chief Hugh Orde said on Friday he had deployed what he called specialists to help police deal with dissident groups but that they were not ”special forces”.

Ireland’s public broadcaster RTE said the attackers got past the army base’s checkpoint in a taxi and opened fire with machine guns.

Officials dismissed media reports that the attackers had posed as pizza delivery men to breach the base’s security.

The worst attack since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement occurred just months after the signing when a car bomb in the market town of Omagh, west of Belfast, killed 29 people. The Real IRA splinter group claimed responsibility.

The bombing caused an international and domestic outcry that put pressure on republican dissidents to curb their violence. – Reuters