Police in Northern Ireland said yesterday that they were "making progress" in the hunt for the gunmen who killed two soldiers and wounded four other people in the weekend attack on an Army base near Belfast.
Their investigation may zero in on experienced terrorist figures, since the incident in which the soldiers were murdered has the hallmarks of being carried out by seasoned gunmen. Sixty shots are said to have been fired in 30 seconds.
The attack, which has been claimed as the work of the Real IRA, had particularly audacious features, with the killers not bothering to set fire to the getaway car that they abandoned seven miles away. Terrorists generally set such vehicles alight to destroy potential forensic evidence, since that has in the past led to detection and convictions. But they left the car, a Vauxhall Cavalier which was bought two weeks ago, intact.
During the shooting itself they first cut down four soldiers and two pizza delivery men, then advanced on them and fired again. The attack took place at the entrance of a security base guarded by at least one armed sentry, in an incident which Army chief, Brigadier George Norton, described as a "callous and clinical" attack.
Investigators hope clues can be gathered from the recovered car, as well as from CCTV footage from the Massereene Army base in Antrim.
The attack had a level of planning which indicates that surveillance had almost certainly been carried out on the base, so that the gunmen were able to lie in wait for the pizza delivery. No particularly notorious republican activists are known to live in its vicinity, so the search for the killers is expected to spread to other parts of Northern Ireland.
Detective Chief Superintendent Derek Williamson said "some of the events" at the base had been caught on camera. Appealing for co-operation from the public, he added: "We are making progress. It is very much early days in the investigation."
He was speaking as Gordon Brown flew in as part of official efforts to calm the shockwaves generated by the shootings, which produced the first military fatalities in the region in more than a decade. The Prime Minister, who visited the base and spoke to soldiers as well as political leaders, declared: "They want to send out a message to the world – as I do – that the political process will not and never be shaken. In fact, the political process is now unshakeable."
But questions remain about security levels before the attack. It was confirmed yesterday that the four soldiers who left the base to meet a van delivering pizzas were unarmed and off duty. Due to fly out to Afghanistan the next day, they were dressed in desert fatigues. It was also confirmed that a guard had not returned fire during the attack. Brigadier Norton, when asked why fire had not been returned, responded: "Are you suggesting that people should have fired into a closely packed group including my soldiers?
"Both the guard service and the soldiers did everything that they could possibly do to save the lives of those who had been shot, including obviously the pizza delivery individuals, and I'm delighted by the way they responded but in no way surprised." He said the unit, 38 Engineer Regiment, had now left the base and gone to Afghanistan, adding: "They will not allow the actions of a few loathsome individuals to distract them from the job in hand."
Four of the wounded men remain in hospital. One of the two surviving soldiers who were shot suffered a facial injury. The condition of a 19-year-old pizza delivery man, named as Anthony Watson, from Antrim, is described as stable. The most seriously injured was a 32-year-old Polish pizza delivery man who is in a serious serious condition with gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen. He lives in Antrim together with his partner and a son who is 16 months old. Other members of his family are travelling to be at his bedside.
The incident has produced a particularly strong wave of revulsion in Northern Ireland, with apprehension that a new bout of the Troubles could lie ahead. Most immediately, the fear is that violent loyalists could retaliate, although the Real IRA is not thought capable of waging any sustained campaign of violence in return.
Politically, the mood yesterday was sombre rather than hysterical. The First Minister, Peter Robinson, won praise from nationalists for what they viewed as a restrained speech in the Belfast Assembly. He described the murders as "a futile act and a terrible waste," and added: "The events of Saturday evening were a throwback to a previous era. We must never return to such terrible days."
Meanwhile, MI5 is preparing to boost spending on intelligence activities in Northern Ireland in an effort to track down a hardcore of Republican extremists committed to violence. The Security Minister, Lord West of Spithead, said the security services' budget for the province would be reassessed. Northern Ireland currently accounts for 15 per cent of MI5's spending.
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