The attack took place at 6.50pm local time. Two mortars were fired from a van parked outside the Quebec barracks in Osnabruck. The mortars were aimed at the petrol station of the base but missed, local police said. One exploded inside the perimeter fence near a petrol pump, leaving a crater, but injuring no one. The second shell failed to explode on impact. The barracks were sealed off and munitions experts quickly secured the area.
German police investigating the attack in conjunction with British military police last night blamed the IRA. The German authorities said they were examining a Ford Transit van with British plates.
The police said residents living nearby heard three separate explosions go off. "We have found two of the mortars. One went 20 yards inside the base and hit a tree," a police source said. "Another was found just outside the base, close to a fence. We have not located the third one yet," he added. "Buildings were shattered by the explosions but not hit."
Lieutenant-Colonel Jan-Dirk Merveldt, the British Army's spokesman in Germany, said: "Apparently one of the projectiles fell near a petrol pump ... there is no fire or anything like that damaged in the area of the petrol pump," he added.
The Quebec barracks is one of the smallest in the town, housing only 300 people. Osnabruck is home to 10,700 Britons, of whom some 4,900 are soldiers. These include members of the Queen's Royal Lancers, the Green Howards, 4 Regiment Royal Artillery, 1 Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and 2 Army Field Ambulance.
The barracks, which provides accommodation for troops on leave from Bosnia, many of whom served also in the Gulf war, was the target of an attack in June 1989 when terrorists attempted to murder 20 soldiers by planting a 150kg Semtex device next to a dormitory block.
The attack increased fears that the IRA has been gearing up for another spectacular terrorist attack. Dublin and London sources confirmed to the Independent last week that a bomb-making factory uncovered at a farm outside Clonaslee, Co Laois, in the Republic last week provided hard evidence that the IRA was preparing for a massive attack with Semtex bombs.
Only three days ago the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, said a new type of IRA bomb had been discovered at the bomb-making factory. It is understood that Mr Bruton's comments to the Irish parliament referred to a new type of mortar. Mr Bruton said the bombs were being prepared for early use.
British ministers are seeking urgent talks with Irish counterparts in order to agree a strategy on security against the IRA.
But yesterday morning, at a London press conference, Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, warned that the IRA could strike again. Refusing to condemn the Manchester bombing, he said: "The IRA cessation is over. They could strike at any time and any place."
The Prime Minister, attending the G7 summit in Lyon, was immediately informed of the attack as he dined with the other leaders tonight. A spokesman for Mr Major said: "Clearly this is a matter for great concern but we are still awaiting details of the nature of the incident."
The Tory former Northern Ireland Minister Peter Bottomley last night condemned the attack. "The presumption must be that this was the IRA. It must be remembered always that the IRA do these things to calculate the public reaction, and they anticipate the publicity. This is their version of a press notice," he said.
IRA attacks in Europe
March 1987: 30 people injured by 300lb car bomb at British HQ in West Germany at Rheindahlen.
1988: Three RAF men killed in attacks in Roermond and Nieuw Bergen, Netherlands.
July 1988: Nine men hurt in bombing at Glamorgan Barracks, Duisberg, Germany.
August 1988: Three Royal Engineers injured in blast in Dusseldorf, Germany.
August 1988: British soldier killed by gunmen in Ostend, Belgium.
June 1989: Terrorists planted 150kg Semtex device next to dormitory block at Quebec barracks.
August 1989: Corporal Steven Smith killed by car bomb in Hanover.
October 1989: Serviceman and his six-month-old baby shot dead at filling station in Wildenrath, Germany, near Dutch border.
May 1990: IRA attacks on the Continent appeared to have ended after two Australian tourists were mistakenly gunned down by terrorists in Roermond, in the Netherlands.