I heard bursts of gunfire and swerved vehicle: PSNI officer’s account of dissident ambush
A police officer was left traumatised by a dissident republican gun attack on a three-vehicle PSNI convoy in north Belfast more than five years ago, a judge was told yesterday.
The officer's statement about the events of the evening of December 6, 2013, was read at the trial of three men at Belfast Crown Court.
Colin Duffy (51), Henry Fitzsimons (50) and 57-year-old Alex McCrory, whose addresses cannot be given, deny preparing and directing terrorism and membership of, or professing to be members of, the IRA.
Fitzsimons and McCrory deny attempting to murder police officers in the convoy and possessing two AK47 assault rifles and ammunition used in the attack.
Mr Justice O'Hara, sitting without a jury in the Diplock-style trial, was told that on the night in question an armoured police Land Rover with three officers on board was leading two unmarked vehicles to a loyalist protest at Twaddell Avenue.
The unmarked vehicles were a blue Volkswagen Transporter and a silver Mitsubishi Shogun.
One of the vehicles had a sign instructing loyalist protesters to refrain from playing music. The other was carrying a loudspeaker.
The officer driving the VW Transporter explained that as the convoy approached Holy Cross Church on Crumlin Road he heard the sound of gunfire on his right-hand side.
The constable said he heard "two bursts" of shooting and believed a total of 15 rounds had been fired.
His statement said that he "swerved his vehicle to the left-hand side" of the Crumlin Road as a result of the attack.
While he wanted to get out of the area quickly, his way was blocked by the police vehicles in front of him, which were slowing down.
He told the court the events of that night had a "traumatic effect" on him, impacting his concentration to the extent that "any thoughts I have are only half-thoughts".
The police officer said that as a result of the gun attack, he was off work and had sought assistance from the PSNI's occupational health unit.
The officer driving the armoured Land Rover also gave evidence about the gun attack.
"We were approaching Holy Cross Church, which was on my left-hand side, just after 7pm when I heard five or six loud cracks," he said.
"It was very quick and at first I thought it was fireworks.
"There was a pause and then there was another series of loud cracks, maybe 10 to 12. My initial reaction was that they were coming from my right-hand side."
The officer said he noticed three male civilians on the footpath beside the chapel and saw them "hunker down" after the shots were fired.
The men then moved in the direction of the roundabout at Twaddell Avenue.
The police officer said he did not believe they were involved in the incident.
The constable explained that after the second burst he no longer thought it was fireworks and believed "it was something more serious and more sinister than that".
Mr Justice O'Hara heard that there was a number of radio transmissions between the three police vehicles about the incident and that the officers decided to rendezvous on Woodvale Road.
When they arrived at the location, they inspected the vehicles and discovered that the Land Rover had been struck a number of times.
One round had hit the steel latch on the vehicle's fuel cap.
There was also a bullet hole in the sign being carried by one of the unmarked vehicles, as well as two burst tyres and bullet rounds to the vehicle along its bulkhead, the passenger side and rear doors.
After confirming the bullet marks, the officers contacted senior colleagues to let them know their vehicles had been hit by gunfire.
A female constable who was in the Land Rover said that on approaching the vicinity of Holy Cross Church she heard a "number of bangs".
"(It was) a small burst and then it stopped," she said. "I believed them to be fireworks."
She said she heard a short burst lasting a few seconds and then a long one.
"The first burst lasted four of five seconds and the second burst was in double figures," she told the court.
Asked by a prosecution barrister what type of weapon she believed had been used to open fire on the vehicles, the officer replied: "It was a longarm (gun), not a handgun."
On the opening day of the trial this week, the senior judge was told that police recovered two AK47 assault rifles in the aftermath of the attack.
One was found in a burnt-out silver VW Passat car used by the gunmen, who had fired on the convoy from behind a wall while standing on scaffolding.
The judge was also told that the three defendants were covertly recorded during an operation codenamed 'Operation Idealistic', which was carried out by MI5 the day following the gun attack.
The prosecution claims that Duffy, Fitzsimons and McCrory can be identified from the covert video footage and from an hour-long audio recording made of them as they talked in Demesne Park in Lurgan.
It is the prosecution's case that an analysis of the audio recordings made by two voice recognition experts provides strong to moderately strong evidence that the defendants had talked about how to move forward "in light of Ardoyne and how the leadership were regrouping".
A prosecution lawyer alleged that this was supported by the video recordings, with the clothing worn by the three suspects in Demesne Park similar to clothing seized from the defendants following their arrests.
Counsel claimed that a transcript of the covert recording also showed the trio had "an intimate knowledge" of the attack on the police convoy, the number of gunmen involved and the weapons used - weapons that were subsequently recovered by police officers.
The trial continues.