IRA admits bombing terminal and gas tank: Terrorists 'ahead of the game' as safety fears grow in North-east

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THE IRA yesterday claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks on industrial targets in the North-east, as police admitted the terrorists were 'ahead of the game'.

A terrorist unit set off two explosive devices late on Wednesday night at the Esso oil terminal in North Shields, which the IRA attacked in April. The explosions shook homes some distance from the terminal but no one was hurt and little damage caused.

The attack in North Shields came 24 hours after a gas storage tank in Gateshead was damaged by two explosive devices. British Gas said yesterday that the tank, when attacked, was only half full. The explosion ripped a small hole in the side of the tank causing gas to escape which was then ignited.

There are 22 similar gasholders throughout British Gas's northern region, stretching from the Scottish border into Cumbria and across to the east coast. Nearly all are near housing estates.

It is practically impossible to mount foolproof round-the-clock security at such sites, which is presumably one reason why they have been selected by the terrorists. The North-east has probably been targeted because of its good motorway links, which allow terrorists to move in and out of the area with very little risk.

David George, an expert in terrorism at Newcastle University, said the recent attacks in the North-east helped build up the impression that the 'long arm of the IRA' could reach out to anywhere in the United Kingdom.

He said: 'It is significant that certain areas, Scotland is one and Wales another, have not been attacked by the IRA. They do actually choose their locations for their campaigns quite carefully.

'I think the combination of the fact that the North-east had never been attacked previously, together with its transport infrastructure, would be two very compelling reasons for them to choose this area.'

Northumbria police confirmed that both attacks were probably the work of the IRA. David Mellish, Assistant Chief Constable of Northumbria, said that from debris gathered at both scenes, the police were satisfied the blasts had been caused by explosive devices. Earlier, police were reluctant to confirm that the Gateshead explosion had been the work of terrorists.

Mr Mellish said: 'I suspect the aim was not to cause injury but because of the nature of the gas and petrol involved at both scenes, it could have had potentially tremendous implications.'

He agreed that the bombers were 'ahead of the game' but emphasised that considerable intelligence on the incidents was being gathered. Police have been viewing security camera videotapes but have not disclosed whether they have seen anything of use.

The explosions at the Esso plant were heard for miles around. Andy Kelly, 27, who lives near the plant, said: 'All the houses around here were shaking. We realised straight away what had happened. I couldn't see any flames, just smoke.'

Randall Parker, 27, was only yards away from the terminal when the explosions happened. He said: 'I heard an almighty bang. I came dashing out of my hut and stood looking round with my torch when suddenly there was another explosion. I saw the flash in the middle of the tanks and it must have been 100ft high.'

The worry in the North-east, which has many obvious commercial and industrial targets, is that the terrorists will return and that eventually there will be loss of life.

Brian Flood, the leader of North Tyneside council, said yesterday that all councils had to be aware that the attacks were being made on chemical and gas installations, of which there were many. He said: 'It's time to dust off security procedures. We have to be warned where the high risk targets in this country are.'