2 British Soldiers Slain in Belfast
By Karen DeYoung
An Army statement, which did not name the men, said they had been traveling between two military locations on duties that were unconnected with the funeral and had been in the vicinity by accident. The statement said it was "not unusual" for soldiers out of uniform in Northern Ireland to carry "personal protection weapons."
An IRA communique issued to Belfast media said the men had been "executed" after they "launched an attack" on the funeral cortege. It said that the identification and weapons the men had carried indicated they were members of the Special Air Services, or SAS, a special Army commando and intelligence unit.
The Army denied any SAS connection. But seasoned observers in Belfast believed it likely that the soldiers had been on an intelligence-gathering mission connected with the funeral that somehow went tragically awry.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the killings "an act of appalling savagery." British Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King called for an urgent investigation of what he described as "cold-blooded murders," and said that "neither the government nor the security services will rest until the perpetrators of this unspeakable act are brought to justice."
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland's police force, said that three men were being held for questioning. The police, who were not visibly present at the funeral as part of a new policy of nonprovocation, were criticized by Protestant politicians for failing to prevent the deaths.
The incident was the latest in an unprecedented two-week string of interconnected killings that have led to fears that violence in the province will be prolonged. It began on March 6, when a two-man, one-woman IRA team was shot dead by security forces in the British colony of Gibraltar while on what the government said was a bombing mission.
Early Tuesday morning, as the bodies of the three arrived in Belfast, another IRA gunman was shot there by soldiers. Hours later, a Catholic man, unconnected with any political or guerrilla group, was shot dead by Protestant paramilitary forces who apparently had misidentified him as an IRA member.
On Wednesday, at the Belfast funeral of the three killed in Gibraltar, a Protestant gunman infiltrated the cemetery, threw fragmentation grenades and opened fire into the crowd of about 10,000 mourners. Three people were killed and 68 wounded before the gunman was captured by youths in the crowd, who beat him, then turned him over to police.
The assailant, Michael Stone, 35, has been charged with the three deaths and has been connected to other, unspecified sectarian murders.
One of the three who were killed was Kevin Brady, identified by the IRA as one of their own, whose funeral was held today.
It began with a mass at St. Agnes' Catholic Church, the same place where Wednesday's service was held. The coffin was then carried down Andersonstown Road in a procession that reporters said included about 1,500 mourners and a number of vehicles.
Andersonstown Road is one of the principal thoroughfares leading to Catholic west Belfast. About half a mile from the church, it connects with Falls Road, the main street of the Catholic section of the city.
The Andersonstown-Falls Road route is the one normally used for republican funerals and parades and is generally closed to traffic during the ceremonies, either by police, or by tacit understanding of the Belfast populace. In the close-knit west Belfast community, any unfamiliar person or vehicle is considered suspicious. The idea of two British soldiers driving through the area by mistake, particular on the day of a widely publicized funeral, seemed somewhat incredible to many observers.
Because of what had happened Wednesday, mourners and republican sympathizers in the procession, most of them tough-looking young men, were even more vigilant than usual, reporters on the scene said. Suddenly, when the cortege had traveled a short distance from the church, a small, silver automobile appeared, traveling along the empty street toward the cortege at what witnesses said was about 40 miles per hour.
As it reached the head of the procession, scattering the first rows of marchers, its driver stopped suddenly, reversed gears and tried desperately to back up. With news media cameras rolling, dozens of men in the procession quickly ran to the car and surrounded it, beating on the windows and jumping on the roof, as others in the crowd screamed and ran for cover.
Initially, stewards assigned to the march by Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, shouted for calm and tried to bring events under control. At one point, the mob retreated, startled by what reporters later said was a gun pulled by at least one of the two men inside the car.
After a moment's hesitation, the mob again rushed the car and began breaking its windows with tire irons and rocks. One shot was fired, apparently by one of the soldiers.
As the soldiers were pulled from the car, news cameramen photographed the driver of the car holding a handgun. Then, men in the crowd pushed reporters back, putting their hands over the cameras.
One reporter on the scene, columnist Mary Holland of the Observer, a leading London Sunday paper, described seeing one of the soldiers being dragged along the street, his face covered with blood. The mob carried the two behind a tall metal fence into the yard of a Gaelic football clubhouse.
The procession moved ahead to the cemetery, and several minutes later gunshots were heard. Moments later, Holland said, she walked back down Andersonstown Road and saw a crowd of about 100 men walking out of a parking lot near the football club. In a small alley behind, she said, "a priest was kneeling by the body" of one of the soldiers, talking to him quietly.
The soldier, Holland said, had been stripped to his underwear and had what appeared to be numerous wounds in his body. "His eyes were open," she said, "and at that point he was still alive." The priest told her to call an ambulance, and she ran to a nearby telephone.
When she returned, Holland said, police and soldiers were on the scene and had covered the two soldiers' bodies with blankets.
In a separate incident this morning, a 21-year-old woman was shot to death and her fiance seriously injured in an IRA gun attack on their car in the southwest part of the province near the border with the Irish Republic. An IRA communique said that their target had been the woman's brother, who it alleged was a member of the Ulster Defense Regiment, an official, quasimilitary defense unit similar to the U.S. National Guard. The Royal Ulster Constabulary denied that the woman's brother was a member of the regiment.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company