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Brown visits the scene of barracks shooting

Latest update : 2009-03-10

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has visited the barracks in Belfast where two British soldiers were killed by gunmen in a shooting later claimed by the Real IRA, a dissident republican group opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process.

AFP - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday visited a Northern Ireland army barracks where the first soldiers to be killed in 12 years were gunned down, as leaders tried to gauge the threat to peace.

A dissident republican group opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process claimed it shot dead the two soldiers on Saturday, a killing which drew condemnation across the political spectrum.

A man who said he was from the Real IRA claimed responsibility for Saturday night's attack at the Massereene Barracks in Antrim, northwest of Belfast, in a phone call to an Irish newspaper using a recognised code word.

The attack, which left two other soldiers and two pizza delivery men seriously wounded, raised fears that sectarian violence could return to Northern Ireland, which has seen relative peace since 30 years of sectarian bloodshed was largely ended with a 1998 peace accord.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the province's main republican Catholic party and political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army (IRA), said those behind the attack had no popular support and no strategy.

However, he said Northern Ireland's police chief Hugh Orde had made a "huge mistake" by calling in a small number of army surveillance specialists to track dissident republicans posing a growing threat -- a move Orde had admitted just 36 hours before the attack.

Republicans want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland to the south.

"The chief constable made a huge mistake bringing in undercover British army units," Adams told BBC radio.

"The involvement of these units in the past -- totally unaccountable -- has led to the same type of suffering as that unfortunately being endured at this time by the families of the two British soldiers who were killed.

"The British army in Ireland is not wanted by republicans, by patriots, by democrats. I stress again this is not to justify what occured."

He said what happens next would be decided by the ability of the province's politicians "to unite, not to be knee-jerking, to be calm and to be decisive".

Leaders on all sides have condemned the attack.

Brown was to meet with soldiers at the Massereene Barracks, which is home to the 38 Engineer Regiment of the British Army. The soldiers killed were due to deploy to Afghanistan on Sunday.

He was also to hold talks with Orde and meet political leaders in the province.

A senior security source told AFP the shooting was a professional one which marked a "step change" in the extremist threat.

There are reportedly up to 300 dissident republicans active in Northern Ireland.

The Real IRA -- an IRA splinter group formed in 1997 to oppose Sinn Fein's role in the peace process -- is behind the attack.

The group was responsible for Northern Ireland's single biggest attack, the 1998 Omagh bombing which killed 29 people.

Suzanne Breen, a reporter with the Sunday Tribune newspaper, said she received a telephone call Sunday from a man using an "authorised code word" who said he made "no apology" for attacking the soldiers.

"A man who said he was a representative of the South Antrim Brigade of the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack," Breen told BBC television.

Two masked gunmen pulled up outside the barracks as a pizza delivery car arrived and fired two long bursts from automatic rifles before fleeing -- the second burst targeting those already on the ground.

Violence in Northern Ireland largely ended with the signing of the Good Friday accords in 1998, amid hopes that power-sharing between Protestants, who favour ongoing union with Britain, and republicans, would finally stop sectarianism and bring investment and prosperity to the province.

In an editorial Monday, British newspaper The Independent said: "The likelihood is that the broader peace process will hold. The mainstream political parties of Northern Ireland have too much invested to allow it to be derailed by such attacks."


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Date created : 2009-03-09