Failed mortar attack raises IRA fears

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In an ominous sign of the IRA's violent intentions in the pre-Christmas period, the organisation has failed in an attempt to blow up a security force vehicle in north Belfast using a Semtex filled mortar.

The abortive attack was seen as unmistakeable confirmation that the terrorists plan to use lethal means to try to change the Government's mind on the question of Sinn Fein's entry into multi-party talks.

This follows John Major's rejection, earlier this month, of the republican proposition that he should guarantee entry into negotiations if the IRA were to declare another cessation of violence. This deadlock, together with intelligence assessments that the IRA was preparing for a new offensive, meant that Wednesday night's incident came as no surprise.

It began with a telephoned warning, which included a recognised IRA codeword, that a mortar had been left close to the back gate of Girdwood security base near the republican New Lodge area of north Belfast.

Security patrols were sent to investigate but, suspicious of a possible trap, used another exit from the base. This precaution appears to have saved lives, since terrorists were waiting to fire a mortar at close range into a vehicle travelling from the back gate.

The device was concealed in an alley, inside one of the plastic "wheelie- bins" which are ubiquitous in Belfast. It contained almost a kilogram of Semtex. Such mortars are relatively inaccurate, but at close range can have a devastating effect. After some time passed without security vehicles appearing, the terrorists abandoned the device.

Last week three similar bombs were found hidden behind a bricked-up wall in the kitchen of a house in west Belfast, together with more than thirty cassette-type incendiary devices.

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