Three men arrested over attempted murder of senior detective in Northern Ireland

Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was shot several times in front of his young son in Omagh

Rebecca Black
Friday 24 February 2023 09:26 GMT
Northern Ireland shooting: Three men arrested over shooting of detective, police say

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Three men have been arrested in Northern Ireland in connection with the attempted murder of an off-duty police officer who was shot several times.

Gunmen shot Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in front of his young son in the attack at a sports complex in Omagh, Co Tyrone, on Wednesday evening.

Mr Caldwell ran a short distance and fell to the ground where the attackers continued to fire at him as children ran in terror to get to safety, police have said.

Mr Caldwell remains in a critical but stable condition in hospital after the attack at the Youth Sports Centre.

At a press conference in Belfast, PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne said: “This morning we have arrested three men aged 38, 45 and 47 in Omagh and Coalisland in connection with John’s attempted murder.

“They’re currently being questioned by detectives at Musgrave serious crime suite.”

The dissident republican group the New IRA are the “primary focus” of the PSNI’s attempted murder probe.

The attack has been condemned by political leaders across the UK and Ireland.

Mr Caldwell had been coaching a youth sports team at the facility on Wednesday evening.

Mr Byrne added: “Clearly as an organisation, we are utterly shocked and angered by last night’s brazen and calculated attack.

“John is a father, husband and colleague, and a valued and active member of his local community.”

He said Mr Caldwell has been a valued police officer for 26 years “committed to public service as a senior investigating officer supporting victims and their families in bringing offenders to justice”.

John is held in the highest esteem within our organisation. He is a credit to his family and to the police service

Simon Byrne

He added: “John is held in the highest esteem within our organisation. He is a credit to his family and to the police service.

“And of course our thoughts are with John and his family as he fights for his life in hospital today.”

Mr Byrne added: “This has sent a huge shockwave across the organisation.

“We’ve been speaking principally with the Police Federation but also with those representatives of senior officers and police staff who would see themselves under threat.

“Clearly, one of the things that defines us is our resilience and our commitment to keep going in dark times and tough times.

“So John knows that his colleagues will now be working tirelessly around the clock to support his recovery but also to bring the offenders that have tried to kill him to swift justice.”

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said there were “many other young people, children” waiting to be picked up by their parents when the attack on Mr Caldwell took place.

“And those children ran for cover in sheer terror towards the centre,” he told reporters.

He said: “The two gunmen, who were dressed in dark clothing, carried out this cowardly attack and left the scene on foot. At least two other vehicles were struck by their volley of shots.

“We believe the gunmen fled the scene in a small, dark-coloured vehicle shortly after 8pm. We believe this vehicle was abandoned and set on fire in Racolpa Road, Omagh.

“We want to hear from anyone who was in the area or who witnessed what happened to get in touch with any information that could help with our investigation.”

Mr Caldwell is a high-profile officer who has led a number of major investigations, including taking a leading role in the murder probe following the killing of Natalie McNally in Lurgan in December.

Irish police are working closely in co-operation with their counterparts in the PSNI and have intensified patrols.

Christos Gaitatzis, the principal of Omagh High School whose students were at the scene of the shooting, told BBC Radio Ulster: “I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the youngsters this morning, waking up in the aftershock of what they experienced last night.

“I feel that those people affected here last night were my children, were my family.

“We really need to get together as a community in order to make sure that these types of instances, that contain violence in the most heinous way I can describe, have to be pushed away from our community.

“(We have to) make sure that those individuals are caught and isolated out of our community to make sure that Omagh remains the town that it always has been – a town that is together, is coming together at all times, especially during difficult circumstances like this.”

The New IRA has been blamed for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in 2019.

Last November, the group was also thought to be behind the attempted murder of two police officers in a bomb attack in Strabane, Co Tyrone.

Omagh has seen significant dissident violence in the past, including a Real IRA bomb attack in 1998 which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.

It was also where Constable Ronan Kerr was murdered in April 2011.

The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years last March.

The shooting of Mr Caldwell has been condemned by politicians across the UK and Ireland.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was appalled by the “disgraceful shooting of an off-duty police officer in Omagh”.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar condemned the “grotesque act of attempted murder”.

Irish president Michael D Higgins said: “The shooting of a police officer in front of his son is something that will be condemned by all those who believe in democracy and the peace that we all need to sustain.

“It is to be welcomed that members of all communities have expressed their revulsion at this act.”

In a joint statement, Northern Ireland’s political leaders said they stand united in outright condemnation of the attack.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Alliance leader Naomi Long, UUP leader Doug Beattie and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said they speak for the “overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder”.

“There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace,” they said.

“Those responsible must be brought to justice.

“This will require the full co-operation of the public whom we call upon to assist police in this attempted murder investigation.

“Together we stand with John’s family and his colleagues in the police service at this time.”

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