| 14.2°C Dublin

IRA unit fired first on undercover soldiers, report says

An eight-man IRA unit wiped out by SAS gunmen after they launched a bomb attack on a police station nearly 25 years ago, opened fire first on the undercover soldiers, it has been claimed.

A report of an investigation into the shootings by the historical enquiries team (HET), which was set up to investigate unsolved killings in Northern Ireland, is due to be handed over to relatives of the Provisionals who died, as well as the family of an innocent civilian caught up in the gunfire outside Loughgall RUC station, Co Armagh, in May 1987.

It was always believed that SAS soldiers hiding in nearby fields fired the first shots as the IRA men retreated after bombing the station using a hijacked digger to carry the bomb and smash through a perimeter fence.

Most of them were inside a van which was sprayed with bullets.

The Belfast Telegraph said today that the HET report will claim that the IRA men could not have been safely arrested and the soldiers were within their rights to open fire.

A spokesman for the HET said she could not comment on the report because they were working with the families on a confidential basis.

She said: "It (the HET) does not discuss the contents or progress of a review with anyone except families concerned or their representatives."

The eight men belonged to the East Tyrone brigade, one of the most feared IRA units, which was heavily involved in a series of attacks on police and soldiers at the time, especially in areas close to the border with the Irish Republic.

A ninth man, Anthony Hughes, an innocent passer-by who was driving home at the time, was also killed.

East Derry MP Gregory Campbell said today the eight IRA men deserved to die - a claim which infuriated a Sinn Fein member of the Northern Ireland Assembly whose wife's brother, Patrick Kelly, 30, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, was among the eight shot dead by the soldiers.

Barry McElduff said Mr Campbell's "gloating" was unacceptable.

He said: "The men killed at Loughgall were victims of a British Government policy of shoot-to-kill. Nobody believes that the British Army unit were sent into Loughgall that evening to arrest anybody.

"They were sent there to kill the IRA unit and that is what they did. If the HET try and put forward a different theory, it will say more about that group's credibility than anything else.

"The families of those killed at Loughgall deserve the truth. They do not deserve continuing cover-up and concealment by the British Government or by the HET.

"The fact that this report was leaked to the media before being given to the families says much about the intent of the HET with regard to this investigation."