Four held over Northern Ireland car bomb as police link blast to dissident republican New IRA

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, AP

Four men were arrested Sunday following a car bombing in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry, according to police who believe dissident republican group the New IRA to be responsible.

Two suspects in their 20s were arrested Sunday morning and two other men, aged 34 and 42, were taken into custody in the evening, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.

Attackers hijacked a pizza delivery vehicle, loaded it with explosives and left it outside the city-center courthouse on Saturday evening, the police service said. The device exploded at 8:10 p.m. local time, as police, who had spotted the suspicious vehicle, were evacuating the area. No one was injured by the blast.

The force said a warning call was made to a charity hot line in England and passed on to local law enforcement minutes before the explosion.

Police released surveillance camera footage of the car being parked in front of the courthouse, and of the driver sprinting away. Images also showed a group of young people walking past the car shortly before it blew up.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said the bomb had been a “crude” and unstable device, and called the attack “incredibly reckless.”

“Fortunately it didn’t kill anybody but clearly it was a very significant attempt to kill people here in this community,” the assistant chief constable told a news conference.

Hamilton said the main focus of the investigation was on the New IRA — one of a small number of groups opposed to a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence in the U.K.-run province. They have carried out sporadic attacks in recent years.

“The New IRA, like most dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland, is small, largely unrepresentative, and determined to drag people back to somewhere they don’t want to be,” Hamilton added.

“The people responsible for this attack have shown no regard for the community or local businesses. They care little about the damage to the area and the disruption they have caused.”

Londonderry, also known as Derry, was a consistent flash point in the three decades of sectarian bloodshed in Northern Ireland known as the “troubles.”

Campaigns of assassination and car bombing between republicans and unionists were largely brought to an end by the 1998 Good Friday peace accords.

As part of the agreement, the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group decommissioned its last remaining weapons in 2005 and committed itself to pursuing its aim of a united Ireland through purely political means.

But dissident paramilitaries remain active on both sides of the divide.

Politicians from all sides on the island of Ireland condemned the incident.

“This attempt to disrupt progress in Northern Ireland has rightly been met with utter condemnation from all parts of the community,” said Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state.

“The small number of people responsible have absolutely nothing to offer Northern Ireland’s future and will not prevail.”

“This is intolerable violence and we want to look forward and build a peaceful future for all in Northern Ireland.”

Arlene Foster, a former Northern Irish first minister who heads the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, said: “This pointless act of terror must be condemned in the strongest terms. Only hurts the people of the city.

“Perpetrated by people with no regard for life,” she added.

She said the swift actions of the emergency services had helped ensure there were no fatalities or injuries.

“Shame on you. Shame on you and stop,” said Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Irish republican party Sinn Fein. She told BBC Northern Ireland the blast was an “outrageous attack.”

The Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “I utterly condemn the car bomb terrorist attack in Derry this evening.

“There is no place and no justification possible for such acts of terror, which seek to drag Northern Ireland back to violence and conflict,” added Coveney, who is also deputy prime minister of the Irish Republic.

The Northern Ireland police force said it was given only minutes to evacuate children and hundreds of hotel guests before the explosion. It said the device was highly unstable and could have detonated at any time.

Officers spotted a suspicious vehicle at the scene at about 7:55 p.m. then received a warning five minutes later that a device had been left there, the force said.

“We moved immediately to begin evacuating people from nearby buildings including hundreds of hotel guests, 150 people from the Masonic Hall and a large number of children from a church youth club,” Hamilton said earlier.

The pizza delivery vehicle was destroyed by the blast 10 minutes after that. The van had been hijacked nearby by two armed men around two hours earlier, police said.

CCTV footage released by police showed the driver running from the vehicle after leaving it outside the courthouse.

Hamilton said he thought the attack marked a continuation of militants’ campaigns, rather than an escalation.

The last fatal attack involving a car bomb was carried out in 2016 by the New IRA when a prison officer was fatally injured by a device left under his van in Belfast.

About 3,600 people were killed in the conflict that was fought between mainly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and predominantly Catholic nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has been suspended for two years because of a dispute between the main Protestant and Catholic political parties.

Police in Northern Ireland and European Union member Ireland have warned that a return to a hard border between the two after the British exit, complete with customs and other checks, could be a target for militant groups.

“There is no doubt that in terms of the Brexit element, there will be a section within our communities who will want to exploit that and use that to further their own objectives but I wouldn’t put that as the sole purpose,” said Gary Middleton, a local DUP member of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

Elisha McCallion, the local member of U.K. Parliament from Sinn Fein, condemned the attack.

“This incident has shocked the local community,” she said in a statement.

“Thankfully, no one appears to have been injured. Derry is a city moving forward and no one wants this type of incident.”

John Boyle, who is mayor of the city, said violence “is the past and it has to stay in the past.”