Sniper kills soldier in Armagh

 

FEARS of an escalation of IRA violence and a backlash by loyalist paramilitaries have been intensified by the shooting dead of a British soldier manning a checkpoint at Bessbrook, Co Armagh last night.

The dead man, named early today as Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick (23), single, from Peterborough, was the second soldier to die since the IRA ceasefire collapsed 12 months ago. Although it was not immediately admitted by any organisation, it appeared to have all the hallmarks of an IRA sniper attack and came only five days after an IRA spokesman denied the organisation was engaged in a "phoney war".

Late last night, there were unconfirmed reports that the soldier might have been shot accidentally by a colleague. However, a British army spokesman said there was "nothing to suggest anything other than a terrorist attack" and they had received no reports of a "negligent discharge".

An RUC spokesman said the police were investigating the shooting. It did not know who carried it out and "we are not aware of any claims of responsibility".

The single high velocity round was fired at about 6.30 p.m. The victim, who was shot in the back, was admitted to Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry, 10 minutes later and was certified dead at 7 p.m.

A hospital spokesman said a woman had been treated for lacerations to the head and would be discharged later. Another woman and a nine year old boy were admitted, suffering from shock.

South Armagh has seen many sniper attacks and the local MP and SDLP deputy leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, said the distinctive pattern of this "calculated murder" pointed to "highly trained paramilitary involvement".

"There can be no ifs or buts about this incident. A man's life was taken in a cold, premeditated way and a civilian has suffered injury. This is violence as we have known it for all too long in this part of Northern Ireland."

The Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, condemned the shooting as "a coward's attack" which pointed up "the cynical contrast between words of peace and crimes of murder".

The Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, Mr Ken Maginnis, said the act was "specifically timed in order to provoke retaliatory action from loyalist paramilitaries which will coincide with Friday's visit to Northern Ireland of US Congressmen and women".

Mr David Adams, a spokesman for the Ulster Democratic Party, which is close to loyalist paramilitary thinking, said: "With the amount of attacks taking place recently, it really had to be only a matter of time before someone was killed. We will continue to do all that we can to try and ensure that loyalist paramilitaries aren't sucked back into conflict."

In a statement, the Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, said the shooting was a "tragic event which re-emphasises the need for all of us to redouble our efforts to rebuild the peace process".

The shooting comes against the background of reports of impatience among mainstream loyalist paramilitaries. Political sources among loyalists told The Irish Times it "doesn't help the situation from our perspective".

Loyalist sources suggested the IRA might be "sending messages to the next British government". Several sources agreed it was now virtually certain there would be no IRA ceasefire before the British election.

The Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, made another strong attack on the IRA within hours of the shooting. The IRA campaign, he said, was "anti Irish and contrary to the interest of all in Ireland".

The Fianna Fail leader, Mr Bertie Ahern, said the shooting served no purpose and only made the task of restoring the peace process more difficult.

The British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, said the soldier was "presumably another victim of the murderous efforts of the IRA. My heart goes out to his family. How many more victims must there be before the evil men responsible recognise the utter futility of their terrorism?"