West Belfast gun attack on police officers involved heavy weaponry
Heavy weaponry was used in a suspected dissident republican gun attack on police officers in West Belfast, a senior officer has revealed.
Up to eight rounds hit the unmarked vehicle, puncturing the passenger door and shattering the window, but more shots may have been fired, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said.
Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said the armoured plating and bulletproof glass saved the lives of the two officers who were inside the vehicle when it was ambushed.
He said: " What is very clear is that it was significant weaponry to bring into what is a very residential area, lots of housing, people trying to go about their business trying to prepare for Christmas. Anything could have happened; not just police officers injured or killed but children walking about the street.
"Had a round gone through a window anything could have happened.
"This was totally reckless. No consequences thought about by those who perpetrated it."
The finger of suspicion has been pointed towards dissident republican extremists who are opposed to the peace process and have k illed two soldiers, two police officers and a prison guard in recent years.
Mr Grimshaw added: "It bears the hallmarks of similar such attacks that we have seen in Belfast city and beyond so that is a major line of inquiry."
The male officers were inside the vehicle at Rossnareen Avenue in the Andersonstown area when they were targeted shortly before 7pm on Thursday.
They escaped uninjured but were left badly shaken.
Police are treating the incident as attempted murder.
Last week a member of the Travelling community was critically injured after he was shot in the head in the same area. It is understood the officers had been at Rossnareen Avenue conducting inquiries about serious crime for a number of days.
Mr Grimshaw said a review of procedures and tactics will be carried out but he insisted there are no so-called "no-go areas" for the PSNI.
He added: "We won't be deterred in any way.
"We will police anywhere in the city and indeed anywhere across Northern Ireland. We have been saying for quite some number of years now that the level of threat is severe and has been for a long time and that means that officers do step out each day with the real possibility that they might be subject to attack, but they go out."
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson described the attack as "futile".
He said on Twitter: "My thoughts are with the officers targeted in Belfast. A futile act which could have resulted in carnage for anyone in the vicinity."
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has also added her condemnation of the "shocking" shooting, while the region's Justice Minister David Ford said it was "appalling".
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said it was fortunate no-one was killed.
He said: "This attack happened in the early evening in a busy area and could have killed or seriously injured anyone in the area at the time.
"Thankfully, no-one was injured, but it was a frightening experience for people in the area.
"Those responsible have nothing to offer the community, they do not speak for local people and need to end these reckless and futile actions immediately. We will not allow them to drag us back to the past."
Debbie Watters, vice chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said she was also grateful no-one was hurt.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the PSNI on 101.
The Police Federation, which represents thousands of rank and file officers, has called for extra money to provide additional officers on the ground.
Chairman Mark Lindsay said: "There needs to be more investment and enough officers that we can do their job safely. We work in a unique environment, certainly within the UK and possibly Europe, that everything we do, is done with the caveat that a terrorist attack is highly likely.
"So, what was keeping a crime scene last night became officers being set up for murder."
The PSNI is 700 officers short of the recommended 7,500 for peacetime policing, Mr Lindsay claimed.
He added: "We are not in a totally peaceful time yet and with the increase in cyber crime the demands on policing have increased."
Detectives believe the gunman fled the scene in a Black BMW 3 Series which was waiting at Tullagh Park.
The vehicle had been stolen and was carrying false number plates 05 C 24774.
It was subsequently found burnt out at Cluain More Drive, also in West Belfast.
Following a British Irish Council summit in London, Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the shooting.
Mr Robinson said: "I deplore it utterly. It is fruitless. Martin and I are totally committed to the way forward, we have agreed on the Fresh Start agreement, we intend to implement it fully. We will not be deviating from that process, no matter what anybody might think they can do by way of violence on the streets, it won't alter the course of our actions today or in the future."
Mr McGuinness said: "I want to join with Peter in unreservedly condemning those who last night attempted to kill two police officers in West Belfast. We have seen people like that involved in the murder of two people in East Belfast.
"These acts have been carried out by criminals, by people who hate the peace process, hate political progress and hate the political institutions.
"They do that against the backdrop of knowing that the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland are in favour of the peace process, democratically expressed not just in the referendum but in countless elections since."