Attacks launched by dissident republicans are in danger of causing another atrocity on the scale of the Omagh bombing, the North’s police chief signalled today.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott visited the scene of last week’s car bomb attack which narrowly missed claiming lives when it exploded outside a Derry police station.
Since then separate booby trap bombs in Co Down targeted a soldier and a policewoman, while police in the Republic of Ireland uncovered a haul of ammunition and bomb-making equipment.
Mr Baggott warned that dissident republican groups opposed to the peace process were behaving in a reckless manner that echoed the 1998 Omagh attack when a car bomb left by the so-called Real IRA in the middle of the Co Tyrone town killed 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins.
“These are the same people, or the same mindset that ultimately led to the Omagh tragedy all those years ago,” Mr Baggott said of those behind the current spate of violence.
He highlighted how members of the public were nearly killed when the bomb went off while police were still evacuating the area.
Mr Baggott added: “They are absolutely reckless, they have no concern as to the fact that they are attacking kebab shop owners, mothers who have joined the PSNI with young children, they are putting elderly people out of their care homes and terrifying them in the early hours of the morning.”
The chief constable said: “They have no solution for the future, except to go back to the past. And they are bringing that recklessness increasingly to our streets.
“We need the public to fully support us and don’t allow these people to do what they want to do.
“They are dangerous. We need to be realistic about them and keep them firmly on the back foot.”
The Real IRA claimed responsibility for last Tuesday’s attack on the Strand Road PSNI station in Derry, where a taxi driver was forced at gunpoint to drive a bomb containing 200lb of homemade explosives to the base.
The device detonated earlier than the bombers had predicted and exploded at 3.20am while police were still evacuating the scene.
No-one was injured in the blast, but the police station and surrounding businesses were damaged.
On Wednesday a bomb fell off the car of an army major in Bangor, Co Down. It did not explode, but police said the soldier and his family were lucky not to have been killed or injured by the under-car bomb.
On Saturday a similar device was found under the car of a Catholic police officer in Kilkeel, also in Co Down.
There was further controversy when an independent republican councillor Martin Connolly, an uncle of the policewoman targeted in the attack, refused to condemn it.
Mr Connolly, who left Sinn Féin in 2007 and is now an independent representative on Newry and Mourne District Council, said: “I’m not going to get into the politics of condemnation. It hasn’t done any good in the past, nor will it do any good in the future.”
On Saturday police investigating the Derry bombing arrested a 42-year-old man in the city.
Gardaí have also made a series of arrests as part of investigations into suspected dissident activity.
Six vehicles, guns and ammunition, and components of an explosive device were seized in an ongoing probe, gardai said today.
The raids in counties Louth and Monaghan were carried out over the last two days after the arrests of five men in Ardee and Dundalk town.
Local divisional units assisted by officers from the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) searched a number of properties and vehicles and recovered a number of items, including a handgun and a shotgun.
The haul is being examined by ballistics and forensics experts.
Meanwhile, detectives are continuing to question the five men who were arrested yesterday morning after two cars were stopped and searched.
The first vehicle was pulled over close to the border on Ecco Road in Dundalk.
Officers found a firearm and balaclava during the search, and two men were arrested at the scene.
Shortly afterwards, three men were arrested when a second car was stopped and searched in Ardee.
The ERU also discovered ammunition and a balaclava in the vehicle.
The men, who range in age from mid 20s to mid 50s, were taken to Dundalk, Drogheda and Balbriggan garda stations.
They can be held for up to seven days under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act.
Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson today ruled out talks with dissident republicans.
The two main dissident factions are the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA.
Political representatives of the dissident groups have played down Sinn Fein claims that the party was due to hold talks with breakaway republicans.
Mr Paterson insisted today, however, that dissidents would not be allowed to disrupt the political process.
He told BBC Radio Ulster: “You cannot have any meaningful talks with people who are not committed to peaceful means. They are not listening. They are disparate. They are a very small armed group with no discipline or clear focus on where they are going.”
A major security operation is due to be held in Londonderry next Saturday when thousands of bandsmen and members of the loyalist Apprentice Boys take part in their annual parade.