Dissident republicans who prepared a 500lb van bomb risked causing an Omagh-style massacre, politicians in Northern Ireland said today.
VAN BOMB 'HELD MASS MURDER THREAT'
By Steven McCaffery, Press Association
Detectives believe the bomb, found at an underpass near the border on the main Belfast to Dublin road, may have been destined for a town centre attack.
Twenty nine people were killed and 220 were injured in a republican bomb attack in the centre of Omagh, Co Tyrone, in August 1998.
While it is believed the presence of a police checkpoint forced the latest bombers to abandon the vehicle, hundreds of motorists drove past the deadly device unaware of the danger after traffic cones and warning signs had been removed, and even driven over, by others on the road.
The blue Ford transit van, stolen in Maynooth outside Dublin in January and carrying false Donegal registration plates, was found near Newry and contained a wheelie bin packed with 500lbs of homemade explosives.
The foiled attack is being blamed on dissident republicans opposed to the peace process, who last Saturday killed constable Ronan Kerr in a booby-trap bomb in Omagh.
The device that killed the officer detonated not long after a fun run had passed the scene.
Politicians have condemned the latest bomb bid, which they said could have caused a massacre on the scale of the Omagh attack when the dead included a woman pregnant with twins.
Policing Board member Jonathan Bell compared the failed attack to the infamous bombing of the Co Tyrone town.
The DUP representative added: "500lbs of explosives were planted to kill and we could have had another example of mass murder on our hands today.
"Just as last week we had many children and families running past the explosive device that robbed our society of the life of a talented young officer, so today we could have had serious fatalities.
"As our police raise their activities commensurate with the threat they face, so we must give them our full support."
Mr Bell said the bombers had planted "500lbs of hatred aimed at murder".
"Had this device exploded the consequences are almost too horrible to contemplate," he said.
The van was found on Thursday night and was made safe during a lengthy overnight security operation.
Chief Superintendent Alasdair Robinson, commander for the area where the attack was uncovered, said poor warnings from the gang responsible had meant police only located the device after the van was spotted by a member of the public.
He said the exact target was unclear, but added: "What we do know is that we had a police operation in place that evening, so it is our belief that the van was being moved to another location, but it was thwarted by the police operation at the time."
He added that the bomb may have been destined for a landmark building or a town centre, and could have caused "huge devastation and loss of life".
"This was a sophisticated device and I am disappointed, particularly in a week where we buried one of our colleagues, that there are still people who feel that there is legitimate cause to take forward the use of violence," said the senior officer.
"The device itself was viable and it was a sophisticated device and it would have been devastating had it reached its destination."
He also issued a warning to people to observe police cordons after motorists removed or drove over traffic cones, causing hundreds of other unsuspecting vehicles to drive right through the bomb scene.
Acting chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board Brian Rea also condemned those responsible for the van bomb.
He said: "The purpose of this bomb was to cause death and destruction. The public and political revulsion at the murder of Constable Kerr clearly shows that the people of Northern Ireland do not want any more devastation inflicted on our community and our police service.
"I would urge anyone with information on this van bomb or last week's murder to bring it to the police."
Meanwhile, a 33-year-old man was detained in the Omagh area yesterday over the booby trap bomb attack that killed the 25-year-old Catholic officer outside his home in Omagh last Saturday.
Police were yesterday also given five more days to question a 26-year-old man arrested in Scotland on Wednesday and re-arrested on Thursday, plus a 40-year-old man arrested near Omagh on Thursday.
It has also emerged that dissident groups are continuing to target policemen in the wake of Pc Kerr's murder.
Detectives have evidence that the dissidents have been actively targeting Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) personnel since the weekend killing.
Officers do not want the nature of the intelligence to be made public for investigative reasons, but they say murder plots are being uncovered at a rate of one a fortnight.
In a further development, it has emerged that just 24 hours before the fatal car bomb blast in Omagh, police had ordered a specialist team of detectives to begin sifting through evidence from historic dissident attacks in a bid to ramp-up pressure on the terrorists.
The cold case review will see exhibits analysed using the latest fingerprint recognition technology and Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA forensic techniques.
The review will examine specific crimes detectives believe may have involved present-day dissidents.
However, the team will not confine its work to terror acts and every facet of suspected dissidents' affairs will be examined, from past financial dealings to potential involvement in other crimes.
"We hope to engender a state of paranoia among the dissidents," said another police source. "Make their lives as uncomfortable as possible."
None of the renegade groups has yet claimed responsibility for the murder of Pc Kerr.
But officers have indicated that increasing links and co-operation between disparate organisations means a specific claim is not as relevant to their investigation as it might once have been.
They believe there are as many as 30 distinct groupings operating across Northern Ireland, some claiming to be the Real IRA, some Continuity IRA, some from Oglaigh na hEireann, with other groups claiming no affiliation at all.
The fluid nature of the dissidents has seen a new grouping emerge in the Co Tyrone area in recent months.
The first two men arrested in connection with Pc Kerr's murder are being questioned at Antrim police station.
The 40-year-old and 26-year-old are also being quizzed about a substantial arms and explosives cache uncovered by the murder investigation team near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, on Tuesday night.