Concern after Armalite rifle discovered in police Strabane search
The discovery of a high-powered Armalite assault rifle raises worrying questions about IRA decommissioning, an MLA said.
A police search of an industrial estate on Strabane's Dublin Road unearthed the weapon and ammunition which District Commander, Superintendent Mark McEwan, said would have been used to murder police officers.
Users of a gym on the estate were evacuated during the operation which began on Friday and continued into Saturday.
Superintendent McEwan would not be drawn on the condition and age of the weapon but confirmed it was an Armalite.
Armalites smuggled from the US in the 1970s and 80s were widely used by the Provisional IRA in attacks against police and Army during the Troubles.
They were used in many PIRA attacks, such as the 1975 Bayardo Bar attack in Belfast.
An IRA unit opened fire on the pub - killing two in gunfire - and then fired at women and children at a nearby taxi rank.
Mr McEwan said: "This was part of our ongoing investigation into violent dissident republican activity and a group called the New IRA in particular.
"We have recovered a weapon which is suspected to be an Armalite assault rifle and some ammunition along with that.
"A weapon of this nature is designed for one thing and it is to kill people, and we believe it was in the hands of people who were intending to kill police officers.
"It has significant power and to use a weapon of this nature in a built-up area is completely disregarding the safety of anyone in that area."
The new IRA is believed to have been formed in 2012 from previously separate dissident republican organisations.
Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey said he will be interested to see what a forensic examination of the weapon will uncover.
He said: "It is discoveries such as this that bring us once again on to the issue of what was decommissioned during that process. We have no way of knowing if absolutely every weapon in the hands of the IRA was put out of action or were some held on to by the quartermasters of the IRA. Given the weapons recovered on both sides of the border by the PSNI and the Garda recently, it is clear that a quantity is old Provisional IRA stock.
"Sinn Fein often demand truth and transparency from others.
"It would be helpful if they were to call on the IRA Army Council to come clean on what was decommissioned and more importantly what was not.
"Whether these weapons are now in the hands of the old IRA, the new IRA or the Real IRA makes no difference, they are all the same organisation to me."
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland warned that dissidents could attempt an escalation in threat approaching the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Chairman Mark Lindsay said: "The attackers were marshalled, driven by hate and some misplaced ideas. They need to be condemned and ostracised. We need to put these would-be killers out of business and, for that, we need the help of the community."
SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan said the discovery of the weapon was deeply worrying.