Police treated massive bomb as abandoned vehicle

Officers coned-off van but motorists continued to drive past 'sophisticated' 500lb device dumped on Belfast-Dublin road
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The lives of scores of people were put at risk in Northern Ireland as a stream of vehicles were allowed to pass within feet of a van containing a large bomb, it emerged yesterday.

The vehicle, loaded with a viable 500lb device, was thought to have been abandoned by dissident Republicans near the city of Newry on one of Northern Ireland's busiest roads, the A1 from Belfast to Dublin.

Although the area around the van was coned off, police for some reason left the area on Friday, even though two phone calls warning of a bomb and using recognised code words were made to a local hospital. In their absence, cones and signs were moved out of the way and many motorists continued to pass close by the vehicle.

The device, which was inside a wheelie bin, was made safe by Army bomb disposal experts. Police said it was a "sophisticated and substantial" bomb that could have caused huge devastation and loss of life.

The incident came less than a week after the murder of Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr, 25, who was killed last Saturday by a booby-trap bomb planted underneath his car. The officer's funeral was attended by unionist and nationalist elements in what was regarded as an impressive show of political and communal unity.

The Newry bomb is seen as a stark message from the dissidents that they are completely unmoved by the public outcry and intend to carry on with their campaign of violence. None of the various republican splinter groups which are active has claimed responsibility for the killing, and none has attempted to advance explanations for the continuing attacks. Instead, this latest incident is clearly intended to convey that they are oblivious to the tide of public opinion.

Police said the van bomb was intended for another location but that police activity had disrupted the terrorists' plans. A spokesman said a town centre may have been the target.

This instantly revived memories of the Omagh bombing of 1998, when a bomb left in the centre of the town in Co Tyrone killed 29 people.

Jonathan Bell, a Democratic Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said: "We are dealing with a viable explosive device on the major arterial route between Belfast and Dublin. With the numbers using this route, is it the case that only the expertise of our police has prevented further mass murder?"

Three men are in custody for questioning about dissident activity following Constable Kerr's murder and the discovery of a large arms and explosives cache in Co Tyrone.

A 33-year-old man has been arrested in the Omagh area, while police have been granted five extra days to question the two already in custody. One of these was arrested in Scotland and escorted to Northern Ireland.

In an attack on the dissidents, Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, accused many of their members of turning to criminality and being heavily involved in extortion, robberies and kidnappings.

Addressing what he described as the small number of people who might have some tolerance for "armed actions", he declared: "Don't be fooled into thinking that you are helping the IRA. The war is over. The IRA is gone."