Dissident republicans were today feared to have escalated a recent car bomb campaign after two people were injured in a major explosion outside a police station in Co Armagh.
The victims, including an elderly woman, were taken to hospital after the bomb exploded outside the PSNI station in the border town of Newtownhamilton late last night. It marked the second time the station had been targeted by dissidents in less than a week.
Firefighters, who had been in the area at the time, were hailed as “heroes” for evacuating local residents and businesses after the car bomb was abandoned outside the station.
Police are investigating reports that a number of shots were fired shortly before the explosion went off at about 11.23pm. Police had received a telephone warning an hour earlier and were en route to the station, which is staffed on a part-time basis, when the bomb detonated.
Two people were taken to hospital with injuries which were not thought to be life-threatening.
They remained at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry this morning where they were described as “extremely shaken”. A number of nearby properties were also damaged in the blast which smashed windows and doors.
Just last week the Army defused a car bomb outside the town's police station. A car was left at the gates of the station in the early hours of April 13.
The bomb went off just hours after police sources warned the threat posed by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland was higher than at any time since the Omagh bomb almost 12 years ago.
Newry Street in Newtownhamilton remained closed this morning and a number of homes are still evacuated. Residents were taken to nearby Newtownhamilton High School.
SDLP Newry and Armagh MLA Dominic Bradley criticised the PSNI’s response to the bomb warning amid claims there was no PSNI presence for up to two hours after the explosion.
Mr Bradley praised the prompt reaction of the Fire Service who had been returning from a fire drill when they heard the gunshots and saw the suspicious vehicle.
“Had it not been for their prompt action in evacuating homes and businesses and cordoning off the area there may have been a serious loss of life,” he said.
PSNI Chief Inspector Sam Cordner denied the police had been slow to respond and reassured the public that there was ample police cover in the area.
“We can’t be everywhere all of the time,” he said. “Additional patrolling is being deployed throughout the area and will be deployed.”
First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, led strong and swift condemnation from politicians against the dissident bombers.
Mr Robinson described it as “an evil and cowardly attack by people who have nothing to offer but murder and mayhem”.