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UVF linked to Newtownards bus hijacking as police up patrols after attack

Donaldson condemns ‘thuggery and terrorism’ as services withdrawn

Thugs who hijacked a bus in Newtownards and set it ablaze are linked to the UVF, loyalist sources have claimed.

The PSNI is stepping up patrols in the Co Down town after the 7a Ulsterbus serving Bowtown estate was hijacked and petrol bombed early on Monday morning, leaving the vehicle destroyed.

The driver managed to get off the bus unharmed but has been left "badly shaken”.

Translink said it is working to restore bus services while the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has condemned the “thuggery and terrorism” behind the incident.

Loyalists claimed the hijacking was done to coincide with a deadline set by the DUP to resolve issues around the NI protocol.

The PSNI appealed for information after two masked and armed men boarded the vehicle around 6.30am in the Abbot Drive area before pouring fuel and setting it alight.

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Chief Inspector Trevor Atkinson said: “Our investigation into this appalling incident is in its early stages and I would urge anyone with information to contact police.”

Alongside the criminal investigation, he said police would be stepping up the visible neighbourhood policing presence in the coming days.

"This is to provide assurance to the local community. I would also like to take this opportunity to echo the words of our local representatives in condemning this reckless and futile act of destruction”.

The UUP said there could be no excuse for the attack while Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said services in the area had been withdrawn.

Translink chief executive Chris Conway added: “We are very disappointed by this intimidating attack on our member of staff and public transport services in the area. We utterly condemn this behaviour and will be working closely with the PSNI to investigate this incident.

“There were no passengers on board when this disgraceful attack occurred, however our driver is badly shaken and is currently being supported by colleagues.

“Our staff are on the frontline every day to keep essential services operating and to keep communities connected; supporting health, education and the economy. Safety is our top priority and we are currently working with the community and the PSNI to reinstate public transport services to the Bowtown Estate as soon as possible.”

The BBC reported claims from loyalists to say they had carried out the attack to mark the passing of the deadline set by the DUP for resolving the issues around the NI protocol.

Ms Mallon claimed the men “muttered something” about the protocol. She said it showed their mentality that they had to contact the BBC to make their claims around their motivation.

In a tweet, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There was never any justification for people with guns on our streets and damaging property - there never will be. Thuggery & terrorism will do nothing to remove the NI Protocol. Political action has secured progress and must be allowed to continue. Violence has no place in this.”

Ms Mallon, called the attack “disgraceful”.

“I utterly condemn this cowardly act,” she said.

"Our transport workers are frontline public workers who provide a critical community service, those who seek to instil fear into the lives of ordinary people are criminals and nothing else.

“My thoughts are with the bus driver who was subject to this attack. All bus drivers deserve to feel safe as they go about their job.”

In September Mr Donaldson said he would pull his ministers out of Stormont “within weeks” should changes not be made to the protocol. He later suggested a deadline of the end of October.

Last week he said that he was still prepared to collapse the institutions.

Asked on Good Morning Ulster about the deadline on Monday, First Minister Paul Givan said Sir Jeffrey’s strategy had been working and progress made. He said prior to Sir Jeffrey’s stance the EU and UK and not been discussing change to the protocol.

He said the possibility of collapsing Stormont remained.

The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, but as a result has put a trade barrier for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain. It has sparked anger among loyalists and united unionist parties in opposition.

Police are appealing for information on the hijacking.

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