Hoax bomb alerts bring city to a halt after rocket attack


A SERIES of hoax bomb alerts brought central Belfast to a standstill for several hours yesterday, as tension remained high after Monday's IRA rocket attack at the High Courts.

A number of men arrested early yesterday were still being questioned by the RUC last night about serious crimes in the Belfast area, including. the attack at the courts which slightly injured an RUC officer.

Following a series of phone warnings yesterday, security force resources were heavily stretched in sealing off areas of central and south Belfast, and carrying out controlled explosions on a number of suspect vehicles.

Among premises evacuated after warnings were the Europa Hotel and the Ulster Unionist Party headquarters adjoining it in Glengall Street. The Royal Opera House, where a pantomime matinee was taking place, was also evacuated as security forces investigated a suspect car with Southern number plates in Great Victoria Street.

No explosives or devices were discovered at any of the locations. Speculation increased that the IRA is attempting to draw British army and police units into a higher profile on the streets and force a resumption of the "ring of steel" security clampdown imposed on central Belfast before the 1994 cease fires.

The IRA reasoning could be manifold - more security force patrols would generate more targets, stringent security checkpoints and barriers would place demands on army and police resources, generate an impression of a military crackdown on a civilian population, and cause an increase in overtime costs.

While unease persists about the intentions of loyalist paramilitaries, sources among their political representatives have insisted upon their continued support for the peace process.

The PUP and UDP representatives are extremely anxious to retain their place in the multiparty talks and have stressed that the Combined Loyalist Military Command has not formally terminated its ceasefire.

The parties participating in the talks will gather at Stormont on Monday for a series of bilateral contacts and meetings, before taking part in a full plenary session on January 27th.

Following Mr John Major's attack on Sinn Fein at his morning press conference in London yesterday, the party's president, Mr Gerry Adams, issued a statement urging the British prime minister to "even now develop a realistic strategy for peace and demonstrate political vision for the future

Mr Adams said it was "still not too late for John Major to redeem himself". He accused the British government of repeatedly demonstrating "an inability to provide proper leadership while constantly retreating back to the old invective of demonstration and marginalisation". This had not worked in the past and would not bring peace in the future, Mr Adams said.

"What did work in 1994, and which can work again, is a strategy which seeks to bring everyone in a credible talks process," he added.

The UUP security spokesman, Mr Ken Maginnis, yesterday claimed there were now clear indications that "IRA/Sinn Fein" had no intention of abandoning a strategy based on terrorist violence.

He asserted that there was now a wide recognition "that it is mere wishful thinking to suppose that Sinn Fein can honestly enter the current political talks process".

The British government should acknowledge the reality that the political process and any peace initiative were, henceforth, entirely separate operations, Mr Maginnis said.

"The political process is, primarily, an internal matter for those with proven and unequivocally democratic credentials, whereas a peace initiative is for the security agencies to evolve and implement a clear and unambiguous strategy which can attract widespread support among reasonable members of our society, and co-operation from other friendly governments," he said.