Two army personnel were shot dead during a drive-by shooting at an army base in Co Antrim last night, raising fears that the grim spectre of terrorism has returned to haunt Northern Ireland.
Two more military personnel and two pizza delivery men were wounded in what is the first major terrorist attack in the province for over a decade. One of the injured is critical, two are serious and one is serious but stable, police said today, as a major manhunt for the gunmen continued.
Gordon Brown condemned the "cowardly attack" and vowed it would not affect progress in the region. "No murderer will be able to derail the peace process, that has the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. We will step up our efforts to make the peace process one that lasts and endures."
The shootings occurred at the Massereene army base in Antrim, 16 miles north of Belfast, at 9.40pm last night. Police said the shots were fired as a pizza delivery was being made, but dismissed earlier reports that the gunmen were disguised as the delivery men.
The investigating officer, Detective Superintendent Derek Williamson, today said the gunmen fired one burst with automatic weapons then walked forward and shot the victims as they lay on the ground. The two soldiers killed were both aged in their early twenties, and were due to fly to Afghanistan on active service in the coming days. The pizza delivery men were also described as young.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this was an attempt at mass murder. There were two gunmen both with automatic rifles. A third person was present driving a vehicle," Williamson said.
The attack is the first major incident believed to involve dissident republican terrorism since the Omagh bomb in August 1998. It would also be the first time members of the security forces have been killed by a Republican terrorist organisation since July 1997, when the Provisional IRA killed two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
Police are investigating whether the gunmen had deliberately targeted the pizza men as well as the soldiers. Dominos Pizza in Antrim had received two separate delivery orders from the base at around 9.20pm, Williamson said. The orders were sent out separately and the two delivery men arrived one after the other. It was at this point when gunmen opened fire from a car.
The area around the barracks was sealed off today as a major security operation continued. Police were understood to be examining a car found abandoned in the nearby town of Randalstown. Officers were trying to establish whether the vehicle was used in the shooting.
Williamson said: "Last night two very young men lost their lives in a very callous and a very ruthless attack by terrorists who have no thought and had no thought for anyone who was in the vicinity. The attack took place at a time when two other young men, two civilians, who were delivering pizzas to the Massereene barracks stopped, and it is clear from what we know at this stage that the terrorists not only wanted to kill soldiers who were there last night, but also to try to kill those two pizza delivery men."
If the killings are confirmed as the work of dissident terrorists, it represents a return to the campaign of assassination of soldiers and police officers, that was meant to have ended when the IRA declared its final ceasefire in July 1997.
The killings come just 48 hours after Northern Ireland's chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, warned that the dissident terrorist threat was at its highest level since he took over seven years ago. Observers fear it could signal an upsurge in the campaign by splinter IRA groups to destabilise the political settlement that has Sinn F? sharing power with its Unionist enemies.
Orde also confirmed that undercover British army troops were on paramilitary surveillance duties in Northern Ireland.
Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack but security sources said the incident was undoubtedly the work of dissident organisations opposed to the peace settlement .
Northern Ireland's first minister and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, said he was postponing a trip to the United States as a result of the shootings. He said they were a "terrible reminder of the events of the past".
The Northern Ireland secretary, Shaun Woodward, condemned the attack as an "act of criminal barbarism". He said: "My thoughts are with the families of those killed and injured in this murderous attack."
Ian Paisley Jr, a DUP member for the Northern Ireland assembly, said the shooting could be a defining moment in the history of Northern Ireland. "For the last 10 years people believed things like this happened in foreign countries, places like Basra. Unfortunately, it has returned to our doorstep."]
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