Dissidents burn hijacked vehicles in Belfast attacks

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A series of hijackings and vehicle burnings across Belfast during yesterday's tea-time rush hour caused major traffic jams as dissident republicans again went on the rampage.

Some vehicles were set on fire while others were abandoned close to police stations, sparking security alerts in the north and west of the city.

The M1 motorway, one of Northern Ireland's busiest roads, was shut down after a hijacked vehicle was abandoned close to one of its intersections. Disruption was also caused in the Craigavon area where a police officer was recently shot dead by dissidents. The tactic of causing multiple bomb alerts was a familiar one in past years in Belfast where experience showed that, even if no actual explosive devices were used, the security forces could take no chances. This meant that even a few abandoned vehicles caused diversions which, at busy times of day, would result in major traffic snarl-ups. This happened yesterday, when police had no choice but to close off various important routes.

The use of a number of vehicles put the army's resident bomb disposal unit, which has been scaled back in recent years, at full stretch, meaning that hours pass before all suspect cars and vans can be declared safe.

By late last night many of the incidents had been dealt with but some areas remained sealed off.

The disruption is regarded as the work of either the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA, the small groups which earlier this month were responsible for killing a policeman and two soldiers.

For the terrorists the disruption represents a low-risk and low-cost means of bringing a major city to a halt using only a few dozen of their members. Few arrests have been made in the wake of such dislocation. Television images of burning vehicles provides violent images which give viewers the impression that all of Belfast is aflame.

The incidents were condemned by a range of local political figures, most notably Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson. He said: "The criminal terrorists responsible for the series of bomb-scares and hijackings are beneath contempt and have no support whatsoever in the community.

"In recent weeks, Northern Ireland has sent these murderers the message loud and clear. We will not be dragged back into death and mayhem. These criminals will fail because of the resolve of the people of Northern Ireland."

Sinn Fein said: "These actions are wrong and counter-productive to anything that our communities want. We would like the spokespeople of those behind these alerts to come forward and explain how this will in any way achieve a united Ireland."