Belfast gun attack officer may have survived thanks to his protective vest
Two men were arrested last night in connection with the attempted murder of a police officer in north Belfast on Sunday.
The arrests of the west Belfast men, aged 30 and 39, brings to three the number of people detained in relation to the attack. A 36-year-old remains in police custody in connection with the shooting.
The officer targeted may have been saved by his bullet-proof vest after the filling station he was in was riddled with gunshots during a suspected dissident gun attack.
Police believe the gunman could have been lying in wait across the Crumlin Road before opening fire on the packed forecourt with a high velocity rifle as families went about their business.
They are now appealing for the public's help in locating a car which they believed was used in the attack.
After firing as many as nine or 10 shots, the gunman is thought to have made his getaway in an Audi car at around 7.30pm.
Chief Constable George Hamilton said police expected CCTV footage would be collected from the garage and forensics officers spent much of yesterday at the scene.
Mr Hamilton described the attack, believed to have been carried out by dissident republicans, as reckless and despicable.
"I would simply condemn this despicable attack, this act of recklessness at a filling station out on a public road which was riddled with high velocity gunfire when people were there to buy fuel, to buy groceries for their children's lunches," said Mr Hamilton.
"We as police officers are citizens in uniform and this officer was a member of the community. He was attacked, but other members of the community were at massive risk as well.
"The people who did this don't care who they could have murdered, albeit though it was clear the attack was aimed at the police officer on duty.
"It's very fortunate that we're not conducting a murder investigation today."
The injured officer is believed to have been hit three times in his arm and spent three hours in theatre at the Royal Victoria Hospital on Sunday night. He will need more surgery in the future.
Police said he is now "recovering well" and believe the officer's ballistics vest, which has been taken away for testing, may have been struck.
Early indications, according to the Chief Constable, are that the attack was not a drive-by shooting and in fact the gunman was lying in wait for his target at an empty car park across the road.
"It's unlikely the shots were fired from this Audi saloon but we do believe it was involved in the attack, perhaps a getaway vehicle," he said. "It's more likely that it was from behind some fencing across the road."
Officers will also be looking at CCTV footage from the garage.
Speaking at a Press conference at Tennent Street Police Station, just a few hundred yards from the attack, Mr Hamilton said: "I would anticipate that there is (footage) but I will leave that to the investigators to collect and make sure we investigate every possible evidential lead."
The PSNI have vowed to hunt "relentlessly" for others they believe were behind the shooting.
PSNI Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said: "We would like to trace the movements of a dark red Audi A4 Estate, registration number KNZ 2862. It's around 15 years old - an old-style model.
"We believe it was used by those involved to leave the scene following the shooting."
Mr Hamilton said any attempt to convince people their violence is legitimate or political wouldn't wash.
"These people do not represent anyone," Mr Hamilton added. "They are effectively criminal gangs."
Speculation emerged yesterday that the attack could be linked to the current "political vacuum" caused by the meltdown at Stormont.
However, Mr Hamilton said he was not sure this was the case and said dissident republicans had made several attempts to kill security forces in the last few years with police, soldiers and prison officers falling victim.
Mr Hamilton said he was relieved the injured officer was in good spirits yesterday morning.
"He was able to have a conversation with me, for which I'm grateful and very relieved," Mr Hamilton said.