BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Suspected Irish Republican Army guerrillas bungled a mortar attack on a police station and hit nearby homes and a store crowded with Christmas shoppers Thursday night, wounding 39 people--including a 4-year-old girl and two pregnant women, police said today.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on the Newry police station, 35 miles south of Belfast and just five miles from the border with the Irish Republic.
But Nicholas Scott, minister of state for Northern Ireland, blamed the IRA for the attack, which he called "monstrous and barbaric."
"It is very much the IRA's modus operandi ," a police spokesman said. "We can assume that no one else would carry out such an attack. It is 99% certain it was the IRA."
No arrests were reported.
Many Such Attacks
The IRA, which wants to unite the predominantly Protestant province with the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Republic, has launched many such mortar attacks across the province, including one in February, 1985, that killed nine officers at Newry.
Six mortars were used in Thursday's attack, police said. All but one were fired from a van parked in the center of the mostly Catholic market town. Those missed their mark, with two exploding in a private house and one on the sidewalk outside a furniture store.
Two failed to explode and were defused, and the sixth mortar exploded inside the van, destroying it.
About 100 houses and stores were damaged. Streets were strewn with glass and doors were left hanging on hinges.
Police said 39 people were treated for injuries ranging from shock to severe head wounds, and 13 hospitalized overnight.
A 4-year-old girl hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell as she and her parents were Christmas shopping underwent surgery for head wounds, and two pregnant women were also among those treated.
"Over the years we have said again and again that mortars are an inaccurate and indiscriminate weapon, posing a grave danger to the civilian population," a police spokesman said.
"This attack is further proof of that. Now, sadly, more than 35 civilians have suffered injury from the absolute reckless madness of these evil people."
In the last 10 days, two other police posts were attacked by mortars and five British soldiers were slightly injured. Nine policemen were killed in an IRA mortar attack at the Newry police station on Feb. 28, 1985.