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  •   Car Bomb Kills 28 in Northern Ireland

    A soldier guards the debris littering the scene of the the bombing in Omagh August 16. (AP)
    By T.R. Reid
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page A1

    LONDON, Aug. 15 – A car bomb exploded amid a throng of Saturday-afternoon shoppers in the town square of Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 28 people, including a baby and a pregnant woman, and injuring more than 200 others.

    It was the single worst terrorist incident in the 30-year history of sectarian warfare in the British province. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack – about 70 miles west of Belfast – but local Protestant leaders blamed a splinter group of the mostly Catholic Irish Republican Army, and indirectly the IRA itself; Catholic leaders expressed hope that the bombing would not damage the continued implementation of last spring's far-reaching peace agreement.

    Police were warned of the device about 40 minutes before the explosion. But the warning was lethally wrong; the bomb went off in the area where the police had moved people for their protection.

    Ronnie Flanagan, director of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, told the BBC that he is certain the bombers gave the misleading warning on purpose, to bring more shoppers toward the explosion. "We have had men, women and children slaughtered here this afternoon, slaughtered by murderers who wanted to murder ... who gave us a totally inaccurate warning.

    "This wasn't an attack on police, army or the peace process," Flanagan said. "This was an attack on men, women and children on the busiest day in Omagh."

    Witnesses told the BBC that there were no cars or buildings to shield the crowds of milling people from the force of the explosion. Hundreds were thrown to the ground in the blast, and the downtown street suddenly became a melange of smoke, debris, blood and severed limbs.

    "The bodies were lying there with water running over them from burst pipes," witness Dorothy Boyle told the Associated Press. Another witness, Frank Hancock, told of "a young girl down a manhole that we had to pull out."

    An 18-month-old toddler was killed, and the Reuters news agency reported that a pregnant woman was among the dead. Four teenagers also were killed. According to the AP, citing hospital sources, more than 200 people were wounded, some of them children who had to have limbs amputated. At least 10 people were reported to be in critical condition. Some survivors used blown-off doors as makeshift stretchers.

    The bombing came just 17 days before President Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Northern Ireland. Clinton condemned the attack as "butchery," but the White House said the explosion will not change his plans.

    Seamus Mallon, Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, said he believed the bombers were from a small splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, a predominantly Catholic group trying to break British control of Northern Ireland. The main wing of the IRA backed the new peace agreement, but there remain platoons of self-styled "hard men" who chose to go on killing. Mallon said the bombing in Omagh will lead to a police crackdown on the "hard men."

    But David Trimble, the province's new first minister and leader of the mainstream Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, indirectly blamed the IRA itself, saying the massacre could have been avoided had the group had handed in its arsenal of weapons and explosives, Reuters reported. "This day will be remembered as the day that violent republicanism plunged to new depths of depravity," Trimble said.

    Northern Ireland's moderate Catholic leader, John Hume, said "undiluted fascists" were responsible. "Obviously they're trying to impose their will by murder on the people of Ireland, north and south," he said.

    His voice quaking, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said of today's bombing, "I can barely express the sense of, of grief I feel for the victims of this appalling, evil act of savagery." Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern vowed that breakaway IRA members – believed to number no more than 100 and mostly based in the Irish Republic – would be "ruthlessly suppressed."

    Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, also condemned the bombing "without equivocation," and fellow Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, a member of the new Northern Ireland legislature, called it "an indefensible act designed to wreck the [peace] process." He added, "Everyone should work to ensure that the peace process continues."

    Former senator George J. Mitchell of Maine, who mediated the peace accord, said he doubted the bombing will have "a fatal effect, insofar as the peace process is concerned," since it was carried out by "a very tiny minority of cowards and murderers."

    With the historic peace agreement that was signed on Good Friday, and the overwhelmingly popular vote May 22 in favor of a new local assembly to implement the peace plan, it was generally assumed in Northern Ireland that the 30-year-old, sectarian "Troubles," which took the lives of more than 3,400 people, were just about over.

    But peace has come at a painful price. Splinter groups unhappy with the compromises required by the Good Friday agreement have taken credit for various shootings, bombings and arson attacks.

    This spring and summer's bombings had not taken a large toll, in part because there were advance warnings in most cases. At first, today's bomb in Omagh looked to follow that pattern.

    On a bright Saturday on the weekend of the town's annual summer festival, police were told that a bomb had been planted at the local courthouse, at the west end of the town square. Officers quickly began moving the crowds of people eastward, toward the Market Street part of town.

    "They moved everybody toward the danger," local pub owner Nigel O'Kane told the BBC. "They had the whole crowd assembled down on Market Street, and then the explosion came right in the middle of the crowd."

    © Copyright 1998 Washington Post Company

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