Loyalist ceasefire in the balance after devastating attack

 

THE loyalist paramilitary ceasefire hung in the balance last night after the devastating double car bomb attack on British army headquarters in Northern Ireland which seemed designed to provoke a return to full scale conflict.

No warning was given and up to late last night no group had admitted responsibility for the attack.

Thirty one people were injured inside one of the most heavily fortified military bases in these islands. Eight people were still in hospital in Belfast last night, two in a very serious condition.

Intense speculation centred on the identity of the bombers who penetrated deep into Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim, to plant the vehicle bombs which exploded in succession, causing panic and multiple injuries among soldiers and civilian workers.

Politicians on all sides called for restraint as angry loyalists pinned the blame squarely on republican elements and said the incident had widespread and grave implications.

There was no immediate denial of responsibility from the IRA, and fears were expressed that if it was responsible for the attack, it could mark the re engagement of its military campaign in the North - a development which would have profound repercussions.

It was seen as significant that the explosions coincided with the opening of the Tory Party conference in Bournemouth, and also with the Northern Ireland trade conference in Pittsburgh.

The blasts were heard clearly in the Maze Prison, where loyalist politicians were holding crisis discussions with paramilitary prisoners, members of the UVF and the Red Hand Commando, on their attitude to the peace process and the loyalist ceasefire.

The five hours of talks were said to have been constructive but the dramatic developments outside were expected to supersede their content.

The Combined Loyalist Military Command is now expected to hold an emergency meeting to decide a response to the Lisburn attack.

The car bombs inside the military base were estimated to have contained 500 to 1,000lb of explosives.

Dozens of ambulances were called to the scene and took nine of the most seriously injured to the nearby Lagan Valley hospital and later to specialist units in Belfast hospitals.

A 70 year old man and two children - one of them an eight year old girl - were among those treated in hospital for shock. Twenty of those hurt were British military personnel.

An investigation began immediately into how the bombers penetrated the rigorous security system at the base, which is believed to have only one heavily guarded vehicle entrance which is reached through a residential cul de sac.

Mr Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party told the BBC2 Newsnight TV programme: "The developments in Lisburn today are very serious and signal a Republican intention to bring our country back into a conflict role.

"I find it difficult to disbelieve that the IRA were not involved ink some way, particularly regarding the intricacy of the operation.

"I am certain elements of the IRA are compliant in this."

A member of the Sinn Fein ardchomhairle, Mr Martin McGuinness, said there was nothing to indicate the IRA was responsible.

"I have no idea who is responsible. In the absence of a claim of responsibility, I think it is wrong to become involved in idle speculation. People should recognise Sinn Fein is committed to a peace strategy."