Northern Ireland security forces have seized 500lb of home-made explosives which they believe was intended for a bomb attack on Belfast.
The explosives, belonging to the Real IRA, who were responsible for the Omagh atrocity which killed 29 people and injured more than 300 in August 1998, was found packed into two cars late on Wednesday night.
The material, which had yet to be made ready for use in a bomb, was being driven in the direction of Belfast when police moved in and halted the cars close to the Co Down town of Hillsborough. Three men, one of whom was said to be a released republican prisoner, were arrested at the scene.
All the signs were that the security forces knew of the move in advance and staged an efficient operation to seize the explosives and make arrests. The police were congratulated for the operation by Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The incident is the latest in a tense game of cat and mouse between the security forces on both sides of the border and two splinter republican groups, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA.
The first declared a ceasefire in the wake of the Omagh bombing but in recent months members associated with it have been active in rural areas of Northern Ireland. Although the two groups are officially separate, some members appear to co-operate.
Many of their attempted operations have been nipped in the bud by police, and there have been important arms seizures in the Republic, in particular the recovery of a rocket-launcher. At times, however, the bombers have got through, with recent attempts to blow up a hotel and an army barracks. The numbers involved in these groups are tiny in comparison with the mainstream IRA which is largely inactive. Yet the experience of recent months has been that the security forces have been unable to stop all the splinter groups' attacks.
Nonetheless, the Hillsborough seizure and arrests will be seen as a significant coup for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The relative inactivity of the major paramilitary groups led yesterday to the announcement that there is to be a reduction in troop levels, with a battalion of the regular army leaving Belfast. Military patrolling has been much reduced in recent years, so that there are now many areas in which troops are no longer routinely to be seen.
The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said he and the army commander in Northern Ireland were satisfied the change would not affect overall security capability. He said the troops could return within hours if necessary.Reuse content