'May God forgive them, because we can't': The aftermath of the Warrington bombs: Malcolm Pithers, Ian Mackinnon and David McKittrick report
They gathered in silent groups, young and old, with bunches of flowers and cards, and stood near the spot where the two half-pound bombs had exploded within 60 seconds of one another in litter bins in the town's Golden Square shopping centre. They queued outside the Holy Trinity church, only yards from where the bombs exploded, for a special Sunday service and then marched, many of them in tears, through the town as a mark of respect for the victims.
Their flowers were strewn in the doorway of a shop near to where Johnathan Ball, three, of the Grappenhall district of Warrington, was killed instantly by the explosions at 12.25pm in the busiest part of the shopping centre. One card read: 'To the little boy. My children bought me these for Mother's Day but we all agreed we wanted you to have them. May God keep you and love you.' Another read: 'May God forgive them because we can't'
In all, 21 people were seriously injured in the blasts, and of these, five, including Tim Parry, 12, were dangerously ill. A 33-year-old mother who was caught in the blast with the rest of her family had to have her left leg amputated. Her husband and five-year-old daughter also received shrapnel wounds although their two-week-old baby escaped injury.
Twenty surgeons, anaesthetists and 50 nursing staff worked throughout Saturday night treating the injured. Yesterday people realised that the second bombing in Warrington within three weeks had already changed their lives. Many parents said they would not continue to let their children go into the town centre; they would be more vigilant and cautious.
Council leaders also asked John Major, the Prime Minister, to give them urgent advice about security and financial help to implement such schemes as video cameras in the town centre.
Saturday's bombing, most in the town believe, was perhaps a reprisal by the IRA for the string of successes by the police that followed the bombing of a gasometer in the town on 26 February. Two suspected IRA men were arrested soon afterwards following a high-speed police chase. A policeman was shot and a third man escaped on foot.
But there appears to be no reason, other than the possibility of a soft target with easy escape routes, why the town, which has strong Irish connections among its 185,000 residents, should have been chosen for the random attack on that occasion.
Michael Sanders, the chief executive of Warrington Borough Council, said: 'I can think of no reason why Warrington has been targeted at all. In the past we have had an Irishman who was a mayor and we were proud to have him as such. There is no reason to it.'
The IRA admitted yesterday it had planted the bombs in the shopping centre, but its assertions over the number of calls and detail about the locations was disputed by police. David Tucker, the head of Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Squad, said that the fact that the caller had made no mention of Warrington merely confirmed to him the 'callous indifference' of the attack.
But in its statement the IRA said the responsibility for the 'tragic and deeply regrettable deaths and injuries' lay squarely at the door of 'those in the British authorities who had deliberately failed to act on precise and adequate warnings'.
The rival claims fit the pattern shown on numerous occasions in the past when civilian casualties have occurred. The IRA has insisted that warnings were given but ignored or acted on too slowly and the police have repeatedly denied that this was the case. Commander Tucker, speaking at a press conference, said it was 'amazing' a provincial town should have suffered twice. He could offer no plausible explanation for the shopping centre bombs, thought to have been made of Semtex, and placed in the litter bins only a short time earlier.
But he added: 'If you can think of anything more callous and calculated to cause outrage than to plant bombs in crowded town centres at that time of day, with that number of children milling about, it is appalling and the presence of my officers here indicates that no stone will be left unturned to get to the bottom of this inquiry. These people can be caught and we will make unsparing efforts to arrest them.'
The police were at pains yesterday to point out that they regarded Warrington's Irish community as an integral part of the town and what it stands for. There were three minor incidents aimed at the Irish community on Saturday night following the explosions.
Brian Baister, the assistant chief constable of Cheshire police, said that if people were minded to turn the anger everyone felt on the Irish people of Warrington they were misguided and were doing the reputation of the town no good.
The Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Rev Michael Henshall, probably spoke for the whole population when he said: 'I share in the anger, very much so, and I am also finding it very difficult to say what I do believe: I must try to love my enemies . . . These are callous, cruel, cowardly operators and it is very hard to have any sympathy for them whatsoever. They stand absolutely condemned.'
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