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Deadly attack on British base rattles Northern Ireland

British prime minister and others vow that peace effort won't be derailed by the shooting at an army base that killed two soldiers and injured four people, including two pizza deliverymen.

March 09, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Leaders from across the political spectrum vowed Sunday that the first fatal attack on British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 12 years would not derail the peace process put in motion by the historic 1998 accord between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists.

The shooting Saturday night at the British army base in the county of Antrim left two soldiers dead and wounded four people, including two pizzeria workers who were making a delivery when the assailants struck.

A dissident republican group reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack, which revived bad memories of the region's "Troubles," the many years of sectarian strife in which more than 3,000 people died.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown described the assault as an "evil and cowardly" act certain to fail in its political aims.

"We will do everything in our power to make sure that Northern Ireland is safe and secure, and I assure you that we will bring these murderers to justice," Brown told the BBC. "No murderer will be able to derail a peace process that has the support of the great majority of Northern Ireland."

Also denouncing the attack was Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army during the militant group's long years of armed struggle against British rule in the tiny territory.

"Those responsible have no support, no strategy to achieve a united Ireland. Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets," said Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein. "They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict."

After generations of rule from London, Northern Ireland today is governed by a power-sharing assembly made up of Catholic and Protestant parties -- the biggest achievement so far of the so-called Good Friday agreement signed 11 years ago.

The move toward increased autonomy and political harmony has come in fits and starts, and been plagued by occasional small-scale attacks by splinter groups, but the main republican and loyalist organizations have held to their renunciation of violence in favor of political negotiations.

Authorities said that the attack in Antrim, not far from Belfast, appeared to have been planned. The gunmen, who remain at large, opened fire after the two pizza deliverymen had arrived and four soldiers had come out of their barracks to pick up their order, riddling the delivery van with bullets.

The attack resulted in the first death of a member of Britain's security forces in Northern Ireland since 1997. On Sunday, an Irish newspaper said that it had received a claim of responsibility from a dissident group known as the Real IRA.

The group's apparent willingness to kill civilians is a throwback to the original IRA's policy of regarding as legitimate targets those seen as abetting or doing business with the British army, from informers to gas station owners.

Police had recently asked for help from an army special-forces unit to gather intelligence on armed dissident groups, a request upsetting to republicans who still nurse bitter memories of such forces operating ruthlessly in Northern Ireland.

One of the politicians who opposes the deployment is Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister in the power-sharing assembly, a member and a former supporter of armed struggle. But McGuinness had tough words Sunday for militant splinter groups that he said enjoyed "no support whatsoever from the community."

"They have no prospect whatsoever of success," McGuinness told the BBC. "They will not bring the [peace] process down, simply because we will not allow them."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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