Saturday, March 7, 2009

2 British soldiers killed in NIreland gun ambush

Two British soldiers were shot to death and four other people were wounded in a drive-by ambush Saturday night that politicians blamed on Irish Republican Army dissidents.

Witnesses said the gunmen struck at the main gate of the Massareene army barracks in Antrim west of Belfast as a group of soldiers and civilian army staff were collecting pizzas from a deliveryman. Gunmen who apparently had been following the deliveryman raked the army personnel with assault-rifle fire, then sped off.

The shooting — the worst in more than a decade in Northern Ireland — appeared designed to undermine Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant administration and the wider peace process.

Politicians from both the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority blamed Irish Republican Army dissidents, although none of the IRA splinter groups claimed responsibility.

Both sides vowed that the bloodshed would not undermine their 22-month-old coalition, the central accomplishment of a 1998 peace accord for this long-divided British territory following three decades of bloodshed.

"We will not be diverted from the direction which Northern Ireland has taken," said First Minister Peter Robinson, Protestant leader of the coalition, who canceled his planned departure Sunday for a 10-day trip to the United States. He called the attack "a futile act by those who command no public support and have no prospect of success in their campaign."

In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed to "do everything we can to ensure those responsible are brought to justice." He said IRA dissidents were aiming "to ignore the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland and attempt to derail the peace process."

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said the two fatal victims were soldiers, while those wounded were two soldiers and two civilian army employees. The Massareene barracks is the Northern Ireland headquarters for the army's Royal Engineers.

IRA dissidents opposed to the IRA's 1997 cease-fire and the wider peace process have been repeatedly trying to kill British security personnel since November 2007, wounding several police officers in a range of gun, bomb and rocket attacks.

But this was the first successful attack on a British military base in more than a decade. More than 4,000 British troops continue to be housed in 10 bases in Northern Ireland, but since July 2007 they have been restricted from playing any role in the province's security and are rarely seen in uniform in public.

The last fatal attack by IRA dissidents occurred in 2002, when a Protestant construction worker was killed by a booby-trapped lunch box.

The last Northern Ireland killing of a soldier happened in February 1997, when an IRA sniper killed a soldier as he chatted to a motorist at a vehicle checkpoint. The outlawed IRA called a cease-fire five months later.

Civilians in houses nearby the Massareene base entrance said they heard two long bursts of gunfire.

Kylie McLaughlin, who lives near the scene, said she heard "constant fire like a machine gun."

"It was very scary. We were not sure what was happening. We just can't believe it has happened here," he told the BBC in Belfast.

The attack came a day after Northern Ireland's police commander, Hugh Orde, confirmed that an elite army unit that specializes in electronic eavesdropping and surveillance had begun to help the police monitor IRA dissidents because of growing fears of an attack. Catholic leaders had criticized the move because it appeared to represent a step away from the army's 2007 withdrawal from active duty in Northern Ireland.

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 in a failed effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. The IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, but splinter groups using a wide range of labels have tried to continue the campaign.