Fears the capability of the dissident republican terrorist group behind the major bomb alert in north Belfast has grown to a “worrying new level” were voiced yesterday..
Major concern was expressed by MLA and SDLP spokesman for Justice Alban Maginness who said the ability of dissident organisations has now reached a new level that could end in a massacre.
Oglaigh na hEireann claimed it was within seconds of detonating the bomb in north Belfast at the weekend — but stopped the attack because of the presence of a civilian.
According to a source it was similar to devices previously used by the IRA.
A command wire led to a firing point not far away from the bomb.
Mr Maginness said the device, had it exploded, could have resulted in a “massacre”.
“The device was not designed to destroy the building it was designed to injure and kill people individually. It was a very nasty, very lethal device,” he said.
“This had the potential to be a massacre.”
Mr Maginness said it signalled a rise in ability by dissidents.
“One thing that I have noticed over the past year is their increased capacity in terms of engineering,” he said.
“I do think it has reached a higher grade and that is a matter of deep concern for all of us.
“That gives them an additional experience in explosive devices. It is at a higher level, they are much more lethal and could be much more effective in inflicting damage, injury and even death. It could have been a massacre of people, whether ordinary civillians or policemen.
“It was clearly intended for the police initially. They were the target.”
Police were drawn into the area on Sunday evening, and the terrorists came within seconds of exploding the bomb — only stopping when the woman arrived on the scene.
There has been a major security operation in the area for days as the PSNI tried to pinpoint the bomb and make it safe.
A number of telephone warnings made after the device was abandoned were said to be vague, but this is disputed by the terror group.
A leadership source said calls were made to the Samaritans and to a number of newsrooms.
A source who spoke to this newspaper said the bomb could not have exploded after being abandoned, because the firing pack had been “unhooked”.
This newspaper understands that information was passed to the police through a so-called “back-channel”, by a source involved in the secret contacts linking facilitators, dissident republican leaders and the British and Irish governments.
Hundreds of people are believed to have walked past the viable device — which police said was “designed to kill” — since it was left at the XtraVision store on the Antrim Road.
Up to 100 homes and businesses were yesterday while two major retail stores near the scene were forced to close.
District Commander Mark Hamilton said the bombers had put many people’s lives at risk.
“This was an anti-personnel device which was designed to send shrapnel over a wide area and kill people,” he said. The alert began after a series of calls from the dissident republican group.
Police said the first call was received on Monday, but initial warnings were too vague and the road was not closed until 4pm the next day.
Brian Rowan: An old tactic from yesterday’s war
Try to visualise that scene in north Belfast on Sunday — see it in the picture of information that has emerged over the past 24 hours.
There is a bomb packed with shrapnel and a command wire leading to a firing point.
It is an old play — a tactic borrowed from one of yesterday’s wars.
As a police car arrives the bombers are watching. They are part of the group calling itself Oglaigh na hEireann. From their vantage point they can see everything — three police officers getting out of the vehicle, another inside the car.
And this then becomes that split-second moment of decision — to explode the bomb or not to explode the bomb.
This is an ambush and the officers are the targets.
But then a woman approaches the police, and the bombers are forced to pause. This is how close it gets, that finest of lines between life and death.
The police are often criticised for the time it takes them to respond, but in this incident we see why those approaches have to be thought through.
In their investigation they will now look to see if Oglaigh na hEireann created an incident in north Belfast on Sunday knowing that it would prompt a police response.
We now know this was a come-on.