Shootings were attempt at mass murder, says PSNI

 

A major security operation is under way in Northern Ireland after two soldiers were shot dead and four others injured in a gun attack on a British army barracks in Co Antrim last night which is being blamed on dissident Republicans.

The attack on the Massereene barracks, which has been described by police as “an attempt at mass murder”, has drawn widespread condemnation from political and religious leaders on both islands.

Police said gunmen shot the two soldiers in a drive-by shooting on the barracks shortly before 10pm last night.

The victims were understood to be taking delivery of a pizza when the attackers pulled up in a vehicle and opened fire.

No-one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but dissident republicans opposed to the peace process were immediately blamed.

PSNI investigating officer Detective Superintendent Derek Williamson said at least two gunmen opened fire indiscriminately on a group of soldiers and the two delivery men as they arrived at the barracks.

He said the gunmen fired one burst with automatic weapons then walked forward and shot the victims as they lay on the ground.

Witnesses reported hearing two long busts of gunfire as a car drove by the barracks - home to 38 Engineer Regiment of the British army.

At least six ambulances and three paramedic vehicles rushed to the scene as emergency sirens blared from inside the complex. The injured were taken to Antrim Area Hospital, about a mile away.

The two soldiers who were killed were both aged in their early twenties and were due to fly to Afghanistan on active service in the coming days.

As well as the pizza delivery men, who police also said were very young, two other people were injured in the attack. One of the injured is critical, two are serious and one is serious, but stable.

Appealing for witnesses, Chief Superintendent Williamson said: “I have no doubt in my mind this was an attempt at mass murder.”

The investigating officer said police were investigating whether the gunmen had deliberately targeted the pizza men as well as the soldiers.

He said Dominos Pizza in the town had received two separate delivery orders from the base at around 9.20pm. The orders were sent out separately and the two delivery men arrived one after the other. It was at this point when gunmen opened fire from a car.

Police are also understood to be examining a car found abandoned in the nearby town of Randalstown. Officers are trying to establish whether the vehicle was used in the shooting. The area around the barracks has been sealed off with a massive security operation under way.

The attack happened just 36 hours after Northern Ireland Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde confirmed that undercover soldiers had been called in to carry out surveillance operations on dissidents amid warnings that the threat against his officers and military personnel was at its highest for almost a decade.

A statement from the British Ministry of Defence said: “It is with deep regret that we confirm the deaths of two soldiers and injuries to four other persons in an attack at Massereene Barracks in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

“The next of kin are being informed and further information will be released in due course. The circumstances and details of the attack are currently under investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).”

Security chiefs had warned for months that dissident republicans were determined to inflict fatalities. Five police officers, two of them off-duty, were wounded in separate gun and bomb attacks in Derry, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, near Castlederg, also Tyrone, and not far from Roslea, Co Fermanagh, where the threat has been at its highest.

There have also been a series of failed bomb attacks, one just a few weeks ago near Castlewellan, Co Down.

The last soldier to be murdered in Northern Ireland was Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick (23) who was shot by an IRA sniper at a checkpoint in Bessbrook, County Armagh in February 1997.

The 38 Engineer Regiment has been based at Massereene Barracks since August last year but is due to be relocated to RAF Aldergrove in Co Antrim by the end of 2010.

PA