Mr Retaliation comes to town

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The Independent Online
UNDER A balmy evening sky, President Clinton stood on the exact spot where the Omagh bomb exploded and wiped tears from his eyes.

Visibly moved as he stood amid the remaining wreckage, the American president unveiled a plaque in memory of the victims. In scenes described by the Prime Minister's spokesman as "very sombre and subdued", he then made his way down the tiny street to where a sea of people were waiting to greet him, accompanied by Mrs Clinton, Tony and Cherie Blair and Mo Mowlam.

As he moved slowly towards the crowds, surrounded by dozens of bodyguards and followed by a long line of limousines, the mood lifted with the sounds of hundreds of people cheering.

Among the crowd were nurses from the hospitals where the injured were treated after the bombing and members of the fire and ambulance services.

"He had tears in his eyes," said Brenda O'Leary, one of the nurses. "I know he's a politician, but they were genuine."

He had arrived late to greet the crowd of 3,000 in the centre of Omagh yesterday afternoon, having spent longer than planned on a visit, together with Mr Blair and the first ladies, to the local leisure centre.

There, away from the eyes of the media, they met the injured and the relatives of the victims of the bomb - at the same riverside leisure centre where they had gathered after the blast waiting to hear if their loved ones had survived. The Clintons were said to be "very moved" by the experience.

No town that has witnessed the death and destruction wrought in Omagh could be expected to welcome any politician with wide open arms. But the Clintons received an unexpectedly warm welcome.

Above Market Street, where wreaths of flowers and teddy bears and cards dotted the spots where children had been killed by the Real IRA bomb, a young woman was pushing a pram. Summing up the thoughts of many of her townsfolk, she said that being the centre of world attention for a positive reason would inevitably galvanise the desire for peace.

"What's funny though," said Bronagh McCusker, "is that we all said there should be no retaliation when the bomb hit, and the politicians said it too. So what does Clinton do when the US Embassy is attacked? He retaliates by bombing civilians."

Ciaran and Liam Hagan, teenage cousins, were at the front of the crowd as the president's party arrived in town. "How can it not make a difference?" said Ciaran. "He spent so much time fighting for peace here."

Mary McAnerney said that President Clinton had made a particular effort to spend time with the small children in the crush at the front of the crowd. "Even though I know a lot of these things are politically motivated, it still helps us."

Earlier in Belfast, Mr Clinton said it was the will of the people which had brought the country to a new moment of political hope, but he warned of a hard road ahead.

"The question is not whether tempers will flare and debates will be divisive. They certainly will be.

"The question is: How will you react to it all, to the violence? How will you deal with your differences? Can the bad habits and brute forces of yesterday break your will for tomorrow's peace. That is the question."