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Dissident attacks prompt calls for special PSNI unit

By Adrian Rutherford and Deborah McAleese

Calls have been made for a specialist police unit to deal with dissident incidents amid fears that PSNI caution over the heightened terrorist threat could be putting lives at risk.

This week it emerged police officers left a car believed to have been used as the getaway vehicle in the bombing of Newry courthouse unsecured for two days.

Police didn't secure the scene because they feared being lured into a dissident trap — instead allowing firefighters to put out a blaze in the potentially booby-trapped vehicle.

It follows similar incidents where the PSNI have taken hours — in some cases days and weeks — to investigate crime reports because of fears of an ambush.

Last month people were able to walk past a van containing a mortar bomb in Keady after officers were slow to cordon off the area.

Police also took 12 hours to respond to reports that thieves were stealing an ATM from McCabe’s SuperValu store in Newtownbutler, while last April the PSNI was criticised after waiting 17 days to search for a suspect device near Rosslea.

Sinn Fein Policing Board member Daithi McKay warned that people’s lives could be put at risk, and has called for a specialist unit to deal with difficult incidents.

“These are dangerous situations,” he said. “We saw the threat when a device went off in Newry. It could have done a lot of damage and killed people in the area.

“There is obviously public concern about police response times for some incidents, and there is a duty on the Chief Constable and the PSNI to look at these.

“If the PSNI is unable to adequately respond to these incidents, then it is worth considering looking at a specific unit or specially trained officers to deal with such issues. That could lead to better response times and decrease the risk to the public.”

Last October residents in Clady had to seal off a road after police did not turn up at the scene of a suspect van abandoned in the Tyrone village.

Independent councillor Gerard Foley, one of those involved in the cordon, said the community “was left out to dry”.

“They were the ones on the front line,” he said. “It was the community that checked the van. It was the lives of the community at risk, it wasn't the lives of police officers.

“What happened here last year was a fiasco. We are still waiting for the PSNI to answer our questions about this incident.”

A spokesman for the Police Federation said each incident has to be judged on its own merits.

“There is a serious concern for officers’ safety and they cannot move too quickly when there is a threat,” he said.

In the Newry incident, officers received reports of the burning car at Dromintee 20 minutes after the blast on February 22, but left it for two days without forensic examination. It was later removed by residents without police knowledge, before being recovered.

Defending the PSNI’s handling of the incident yesterday, Chief Constable Matt Baggott said he would not pressure officers to move into a situation where their lives could be at risk.

“We have to take our time... we have to be mindful of the risks,” he said.

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