ANTRIM, Northern Ireland, (Reuters) – The dissident republican group Real IRA claimed responsibility yesterday for killing two British soldiers in Northern Ireland, one of the worst attacks since a 1998 peace deal stemmed years of violence.
Gunmen shot the soldiers as they picked up pizzas at the gates of an army base near Antrim on Saturday night. Four people, including two pizza delivery men, were wounded.
A caller to the Sunday Tribune newspaper claimed responsibility for the shooting in the name of the South Antrim brigade of the Real IRA.
“He said he made, and the Real IRA made, no apology for targeting British soldiers while they remained what he called occupying the north of Ireland,” Suzanne Breen, a journalist at the newspaper, told Sky News.
The Real IRA, a splinter group from the Irish Republican Army, carried out the deadliest single bombing of Northern Ireland’s sectarian “Troubles” in the market town of Omagh in August 1998. Twenty-nine people were killed.
Northern Ireland’s former foes vowed the killings in Antrim would not plunge the province into a new cycle of violence.
“Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict,” said Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, for years the face of republican opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland.
The victims were collecting the pizza at the Massereene barracks near Antrim, 15 miles (25 km) northwest of Belfast, when the gunmen pulled up in a vehicle and opened fire.
After an initial burst of gunfire, the attackers walked up and shot the victims as they lay on the ground, Irish state broadcaster RTE said.
The two soldiers who were killed were in their 20s and due to fly out for duty in Afghanistan. They were the first British soldiers to be killed in Northern Ireland for 12 years.
Police said one of the delivery men, a Polish national, was critically injured.
The 1998 Good Friday peace accord ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland in which more than 3,000 people were killed. But sporadic violence, much of it crime-linked, has continued.
The IRA, which sought a united Ireland and drew support from the minority Roman Catholic community, and pro-British Protestant guerrilla groups agreed to ceasefires under the deal.
Saturday’s shooting followed a police warning last week that the threat from splinter groups from the Irish Republican Army was again high. It also came after reports, which angered nationalist politicians, that members of Britain’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment had returned to the province.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said IRA splinter groups and “crazies with guns in their hands” did not have public support. “Whether it’s the Real IRA or the Continuity, IRA they need to be defeated.”
The violence appeared to be a tactic to provoke a reaction from loyalist supporters of British rule, said Pete Shirlow, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast School of Law.
The main threat was how those loyalists would react, he said. But there would need to be a sustained level of new violence for the peace process to risk breakdown.
“I don’t think we can go back to what we had (in the Troubles) but it creates unease, it creates uncertainty.”
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA guerrilla commander turned peace negotiator, said elements in both the republican and loyalist camp were hostile to the peace process but they were in a minority.
“We have to move forward, keep our nerve and continue to show that politics works, because under no circumstances can we allow microgroups like this into the driving seat,” he told RTE.