Blair tells grieving Omagh: `Any parent would go mad with grief'

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The Independent Online
AS THE TOWN of Omagh went about the melancholy business of preparing to bury its dead, the political and security authorities yesterday began laying plans for dealing with the threat posed by the Real IRA.

In an early move, the Royal Ulster Constabulary arrested five men for questioning about the Saturday afternoon attack which claimed 28 lives. Around a hundred people injured by the blast are still in hospital, eight of them critically ill.

Survivors and the bereaved yesterday continued to tell heart-rending stories of their losses, their ordeals in waiting for news of relatives, and of the shocking sights and sounds both at the scene of the explosion and later in hospitals as doctors and nurses struggled to cope with the casualties.

Two potentially encouraging pieces of news emerged during the day concerning other paramilitary organisations. The Loyalist Volunteer Force, the most volatile of the extreme Protestant groups, let it be known that it did not intend to end its ceasefire to retaliate for the Omagh attack.

The authorities are hoping that it will keep to its word, although LVF statements are generally treated with caution. The organisation declared a ceasefire some weeks ago, but its commitment and sincerity have yet to be fully tested.

On the republican side, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army, announced that it had concluded "that there is now no basis for the continuation of armed struggle by Irish republicans". The hope is that this is intended to pave the way for the declaration of an INLA ceasefire which - if genuine - would be welcomed by the authorities as a significant advance. The INLA has been responsible for a series of killings this year, and was suspected of forging an alliance with the Real IRA.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair spent more than an hour visiting 22 people injured in the explosion who are being treated at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. He said afterwards: "It was the most harrowing experience of my life but one of the most inspirational. Relatives told me, `Bad and all as it is, keep going to get peace'. It's something that will live with me for the rest of my life."

Writing in two Irish newspapers today, the Prime Minister says he would have gone "mad with grief" if his children had been victims in the bombing. "I think as any parent would, of my own sons, or daughter, I know I would go mad with grief should it happen to them."

Books of condolence were opened in Belfast, Dublin and elsewhere, while Omagh District Council met to consider how to commemorate the victims. Council chairman Sean Clarke, a member of Sinn Fein, moved an expression of sympathy to Unionist councillors who had relatives killed or injured in the explosion.

One councillor, Francis Mackey, is a supporter of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement - which has been linked to the Real IRA by Mr Blair, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, and the RUC chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan. He categorically denied any connection between the two organisations.

Mr Mackey would not use the word condemn when talking about the bombing, adding: "The situation is that someone came to Omagh last Saturday and planted a bomb.

"We don't know the circumstances. The facts may never be known. The reality is that it took place and it has been a terrible, terrible tragedy."

He confirmed that his son Shane was among those arrested yesterday. He and the others were detained in raids on homes at Mount Joy and Sixmilecross, near Omagh.

Meetings took place yesterday between Mr Flanagan and the Pat Byrne, commissioner of the Garda Siochana, to discuss a co-ordinated cross-border security response to the bombing. At a political level, a meeting also took place between Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the Irish justice minister, John O'Donoghue.

The two ministers said their discussion had concentrated on enhanced border security, an examination of how to make it easier to prove membership of an illegal organisation, and various other legal measures.

Mr O'Donoghue said he was considering amendments to the Offences Against the State Act, the South's main anti-terrorist legislation. Ms Mowlam said she personally was against the use of internment without trial.

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