Ministers may be next target

Fears of more bombs as efforts intensified to salvage peace process
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The Independent Online

Police chiefs said last night they were "extremely concerned" that the IRA was about to carry out a second terrorist attack, as security sources suggested the next target could be leading politicians. David Veness, Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Operations at Scotland Yard, said the attacks could occur "any time, anywhere" on the mainland.

Experience showed the terrorists were likely to pick high-profile targets with "economic or political significance". His statement - two days after a bomb in a truck killed 2 people, injured 100 and devastated buildings in Docklands, east London - was endorsed by chief constables.

A security source disclosed that intelligence suggested a politician or leading public figure could be a likely next target. An assassination or car bomb was possible. The source said: "The current assessments are fairly pessimistic. It seems likely that there might be further attacks, although the timetable is unclear."

The warnings came as politicians on both side of the Irish Sea struggled to keep the peace process alive. There was determination in London, Dublin and Washington not to allow the process to collapse. But the strains showed in a public rift between the Irish and British governments over whether an election, as proposed by John Major, or Dublin's idea of a Dayton-style conference was the best way to proceed to break the impasse.

The Taoiseach, John Bruton, said an election would be a mistake that would "pour petrol on the flames", adding that he believed a Dayton-type conference could restore the IRA ceasefire. John Hume, the SDLP leader, said elections would lead to chaos: "An election should emerge from the dialogue, not be a precondition to it." He warned against "slamming the door" on Sinn Fein, arguing that urgent talks were essential. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, also urged Mr Bruton to meet him, saying he believed the IRA was still "open to persuasion".

Mr Major, who will make a statement in the Commons today, last night met Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, for talks on the security and political implications of Friday's bombing. A No 10 spokesman said afterwards: "There is an absolute determination to pursue the criminals responsible for the bombing relentlessly.'' He later insisted that elections were "the most viable route . . . no one should have any fear of a democratic process". Downing Street added that Mr Howard had told the meeting that security was back to pre-ceasefire levels in Great Britain.

The Prime Minister spoke for 20 minutes on the telephone with Mr Bruton. Downing Street insisted it was a "friendly" exchange, despite Mr Bruton's criticism earlier in the day of Mr Major's continued promotion of elections in Northern Ireland as the way of securing all-party talks.

A summit between the two prime ministers looks certain before the end of the month but probably not until next week. Downing Street sought to play down the gulf between London and Dublin but acknowledged that the two governments "see things in slightly different terms". Mr Major is expected to echo in today's statement Mr Bruton's warning that there will be no ministerial meetings with Sinn Fein unless the Government is satisfied that the ceasefire is back in force. Downing Street said last night that the two prime ministers had agreed to work together for a restoration of the ceasefire and all-party talks.

In Belfast, there was relief when loyalist paramilitary groups let it be known they had no immediate plans to retaliate for the London bombing.

The bombing was a severe blow to the credibility of Mr Adams, the attack a rejection of his long-standing policy of advocating political action. His status outside the republican movement was revived somewhat, however, as many political figures indicated they accepted his assurance that he had not known of the attack.

He and Sinn Fein colleagues Martin McGuinness and Mitch-ell McLaughlin gave interviews in which they expressed determination not to give up on the peace process. Their stance found an unusual echo in the Government's position, as set out by Sir Patrick, who said the peace process was "very seriously injured but not terminally injured". Mr McLaughlin, Sinn Fein chairman, said the party would not put itself at odds with the IRA leadership.

The warning of possible political assassinations comes after the Independent disclosed that MI5 and anti-terrorist officers recently told ministers the IRA would strike quickly at targets on the mainland if the ceasefire broke down.

Assistant Commissioner Veness said: "We are extremely concerned that even if this does not herald the start of a new campaign, it could well be the intention of the IRA to follow this with more attacks of a similar nature."