Police 'failed to respond to Armagh bomb warning'

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The Independent Online

A car bomb which exploded outside a police station in a Northern Ireland border village has underlined the continuing menace to the peace process posed by dissident republican groups.

The device caused significant damage to houses and other premises in the Co Armagh village of Newtownhamilton, but caused only slight injuries to two people. One of these, a woman in her 80s, was blown off her feet by the explosion.

The attack is the latest in a series of republican bombings which have caused serious concern to the security forces, who acknowledge that despite intense security efforts the threat from groups such as the Real IRA is growing. In this particular instance, the dissident bombers will take some grim satisfaction from the fact that they managed to detonate a large device at election time.

The bomb went off shortly before midnight on Thursday. A 50-minute warning had been telephoned to a Belfast hospital, which gave enough time for firefighters to alert local families, who rushed away before the explosion. The fact that police did not arrive before the blast led to criticism from residents and from both unionist and nationalist political figures.

Newtownhamilton police station, which is manned on a part-time basis, came under attack only a week ago. On that occasion the device was defused by Army experts.

Nationalist representative Dominic Bradley said: "Given there was an attack only a week ago you would have thought commanders would have reviewed the situation and placed more police on the ground to protect the area. They obviously haven't learned those lessons."

Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy was critical of the fact that police did not arrive at the scene before the explosion. He added: "Had it not been for the excellent and very prompt work of local firemen we could have had a very serious situation."

Chief Inspector Sam Cordner defended the police response, saying they had to react with caution in an area where dissidents were "hell-bent on killing police officers".

He added: "We are always seeking to respond faster to meet community demands in that area. However, the threat in this area is severe and any police response needs to be measured and properly thought through."

Newtownhamilton was in the front line of the decades-long battle between the mainstream IRA and the security forces, with many deaths in and around the border village.

In recent years the level of security has been gradually reduced. While this approach is broadly popular, people living in areas where dissidents are active often complain of feeling vulnerable. This sense of insecurity has grown recently as it has become clear that several dissident groups have perpetrated car-bombing attacks. Earlier this month a large device went off at the entrance of a joint Army-MI5 facility at Holywood, Co Down.

Several incidents have taken place around South Armagh. In February, a mortar bomb was abandoned close to a police station in Keady. In the same month, a car bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Newry.