A bomb attack on three police officers on a busy coastal path in Northern Ireland was a sophisticated and well-planned attempt to kill, a senior detective has said.
Two policemen and one policewoman were only metres from the device when it exploded on the Duncrue towpath in north Belfast on Saturday night. They escaped injury. Forensic experts are examining if the explosive detonated fully.
There had been two previous call-outs to police on Saturday alleging a crime had been committed on the towpath and police are investigating whether the officers were lured to the scene of the bomb.
The officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Baxter, said: "This attack has had significant planning, it's sophisticated and it has a clear intent to kill."
Ms Baxter said the towpath, which is only metres from the M5 motorway, would have been busy on Saturday. "It's an extremely busy pathway," she said. "It's used by people walking their dogs, jogging and cycling. It was busy on Saturday and the device itself was found very, very close to the pathway. Without doubt, had that device exploded with members of the public nearby, there would have been members of the public who would have died, as well as police officers."
The senior officer said it was too early to attribute the bombing to any one group but she confirmed it was being treated as a "terrorist attack". The finger of suspicion will undoubtedly point to dissident republicans, who are engaged in an ongoing campaign of violence against the security forces in Northern Ireland.
Police first received a report of a crime in the area at 1pm on Saturday and then again at 7pm. When officers attended the scene for a third time, at around 9pm, the device exploded. Ms Baxter said lines of inquiry included whether the bombers had lured the officers to the path and were watching as they approached the device.
"I have no doubt that had this incident or had this device exploded in the way that the individuals who had planted it intended it, that we would have had death this morning, we would have fatalities this morning," she said. The detective said the officers were "very, very close" to the bomb when it exploded. "I think it's fair to say they were within metres of the device," she said.
Ms Baxter, who said police were trying to determine how long the device had been in place, condemned the perpetrators as "completely reckless". "They frankly don't care who they kill," she said. "They are keen to kill police officers but they don't care if they kill the public."
PSNI district commander for the area Chief Superintendent Henry Irvine said the officers had had a "narrow escape". "The officers were in grave danger at the time and we are just thankful that they didn't sustain serious injuries," he said.