Hunt for IRA gasworks bomber after PC is shot: PC wounded - Shots fired in motorway chase - Two arrested - Near-disaster in Warrington

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The Independent Online
A NATIONWIDE hunt was under way last night for an IRA terrorist involved in the shooting of a police constable and the bombing of a gasworks in Warrington which came close to causing a disaster. A gasometer was destroyed in the Cheshire town but potentially devastating high-pressure tanks were not ignited.

A night of drama began around midnight on Thursday when Police Constable Mark Toker, 25, made a check on three men in a white Mazda van in the centre of Warrington. The men were said to have had Irish accents. When PC Toker tried to look inside the van, one got out and fired about five shots from a handgun; the constable was struck twice, in the back and leg.

Less than an hour later, in Lymm, a village on the outskirts of Warrington, an 18-year-old motorist was waved down by three men, dragged out of his Ford Escort and bundled into the boot.

The police picked up the IRA trail shortly afterwards on the outskirts of Manchester. They chased the vehicle along the M62 towards Liverpool, despite coming under repeated fire from the Escort. Two bullets struck one police vehicle.

On the Manchester-Cheshire border the stolen car crashed and the men tried to scramble over the motorway embankment. Police caught two but the third escaped. He is said to be in his early 20s, about 5ft 10ins to 6ft tall, with brown hair, and clean-shaven. He may have been wearing a burgundy-coloured sweatshirt and jeans.

The kidnapped driver was released unharmed.

About two hours later a passenger resembling the wanted man took a taxi to Eccles, a few miles from the motorway.

At about 4am, three bombs exploded at the gasworks in Warrington. One gasometer caught fire and exploded in a giant fireball, described as being like the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. More than 140 residents were evacuated.

Two other bombs were planted underneath 10 high-pressure gas tanks; one exploded; the other failed to detonate and was defused.

One fireman said that if the end of one of the gas tanks had been fractured the tank would 'have taken off along the ground like Saturn Five, straight into the houses on the other side of the road'.

Nothing would have stood between the tanks and the houses and flats on the other side of the road. Simon Snape, senior divisional officer of Cheshire fire brigade, said: 'We are talking about a potentially very big disaster with the possible loss of many, many lives. It is difficult to underestimate the potential for damage. This morning was as close as you could get to a major disaster.' Five hours later, armed police officers arrested two people in Nottingham: a woman in her 20s living in a flat in the Sneinton area, and a man in his 50s driving a white Transit van in the Arnold district.

Police said the arrests were in connection with the Cheshire incident but refused to give further details. The unmarked van was reportedly purchased recently from a motor dealer in Newark.

Last night, PC Toker, speaking from his bed at Warrington district general hospital, with his wife, Lisa, 23, and their seven-month-old son Luke at his side, said: 'It was just a routine spot check to check a vehicle out. I wasn't happy with the story the lads gave me. One of them pulled a gun out on me and shot me a few times.'

He said his first thoughts were: 'Will I see my wife and baby again? Will I walk again?' He said that he hoped the incident had not affected his chances of joining the CID. Police said that paramedics probably saved the life of PC Toker. Among those who gave him first aid was Helen Dawson, an auxiliary nurse from the hospital, who had been in a restaurant near by.

'I heard three gunshots and I saw the van screech and run past the restaurant window. I put pressure on Mark's wounds with my hands and then the officer gave me a first aid kit and I put dressings on. Mark said, 'The bastards shot me three times.' He kept asking me would he be all right and would he be able to walk again. I told him to keep calm and everything would be all right.'

The investigation into the bombing and shootings, admitted by the IRA, is being co-ordinated by Commander David Tucker, head of the anti-terrorist squad at Scotland Yard.

(Photograph omitted)