By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 9, 2009
LONDON, March 8 -- A dissident Irish republican group, the Real IRA, asserted responsibility Sunday for the execution-style killings of two British soldiers at an army base in Northern Ireland.
A caller to the Irish newspaper Sunday Tribune, using recognized code words, said the Real IRA had carried out the attack. Four others, including two men delivering pizza to the soldiers, were seriously wounded.
Suzanne Breen, a journalist from the Sunday Tribune, told Sky News that a caller "made no apologies" for targeting British soldiers while "they occupied the north of Ireland."
The two soldiers were within hours of leaving for deployment to Afghanistan, according to British news reports.
Police Chief Superintendent Derek Williamson said that as the pizza deliverymen arrived at the Massereene army base near Belfast around 9:20 p.m. Saturday night, two masked gunmen in a car fired automatic rifles. After the initial volley of shots, the attackers moved toward their victims and continued to aim and fire, Williamson told reporters.
One of the two injured deliverymen, a 32-year-old from Poland, was in critical condition, police said.
The two British soldiers are the first to be killed in Northern Ireland since 1997. The attack came just days after Northern Ireland's chief constable, Hugh Orde, warned that threats from renegade republican paramilitary forces were at the highest point in years.
A 1998 peace accord known as the Good Friday agreement largely ended the sectarian violence responsible for the deaths of more than 3,600 people since 1969.
To forge peace in the province, the Irish Republican Army renounced violence and decommissioned its weapons. But the Real IRA is among the small splinter groups that have never agreed to the power-sharing agreement between Catholics and Protestants and that continue to fight for an end to British rule on the island.
The Real IRA was blamed for the deadliest single bombing in the history of Northern Ireland's "troubles," the 1998 Omagh bombing that killed 29 people.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Saturday's attack will not undermine the peace process.
"I think the whole country is shocked and outraged at the evil and cowardly attacks on soldiers serving their country," the prime minister said. "No murderer will be able to derail a peace process that has the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and we will step up our efforts to make the peace process one that lasts and endures."
The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein denounced the "wrong and counterproductive" act.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said of the killers: "Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict."
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Sunday night calling on "all parties in Northern Ireland to unequivocally reject such senseless acts of violence, whose intention is to destroy the peace that so many in Northern Ireland have worked so hard to achieve."
Dissident republicans were blamed last year for attempts to kill police officers in separate incidents in Derry City and Dungannon, in County Tyrone.
Just last month, security forces defused a 300-pound bomb in Castlewellan, in County Down, close to an army barracks. In recent days, police had said that British intelligence officers were being sent to Northern Ireland because of concerns about heightened paramilitary activity.
On Sunday night, police were examining a car in Randalstown, five miles from the army base, that they suspect may have been used by the gunmen.