Friday 19 January 2018

Provo Semtex used to maim prison officer

Warder is severely injured and his wife has a narrow escape as device explodes under van

Murder bid: A bomb disposal unit officer inspects the van after a prison officer was injured at his east Belfast home Photo: Getty Images
Murder bid: A bomb disposal unit officer inspects the van after a prison officer was injured at his east Belfast home Photo: Getty Images
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Provisional IRA Semtex was almost certainly used in the under-car bomb attack which badly injured a prison officer in Belfast, garda sources say.

It is now believed that at least a tonne of the explosive is in the hands of the so-called 'dissidents', who could have killed the officer and his wife.

She had been standing right beside her husband's VW van only seconds before the explosion outside their home in east Belfast.

The Provos' claim to have decommissioned all their weapons, including an estimated 2.5 tons of Semtex, was met with almost universal approval in 2005 when the IRA claimed it had put all its weaponry, including hundreds of assault rifles, "beyond use".

It is believed the AKS assault rifles used by the killers of David Byrne in the Regency Hotel attack last month also probably came from one of the Provos' undecommissioned dumps.

Gardai were aware that the decommissioning claims were a convenient political lie to allow Sinn Fein and the DUP form a powersharing government but they stayed tight-lipped.

The Semtex has turned up on repeated occasions since. Gardai believe two substantial dumps of Semtex, a powerful plastic explosive manufactured by the Soviet Union, were left intact and that one of these has fallen into the hands of ex-Provos intent on destabilising the political agreement in the North.

The prison officer was injured at 7.10am on Friday by the device, which was attached to the front underside of his van. He is still undergoing treatment for serious leg injuries but is expected survive.

The device used is similar to the under-car bombs (UCBs) used by both republicans and loyalists during the Troubles. A charge of around half a kilo of Semtex is attached by a magnet to the body of the car, usually under the driver's seat.

It is believed a tilt switch, which is commonly used in domestic appliances, including dimmer switches, was used to detonate the bomb.

The PSNI and Prison Service in the North were already on high alert for such an attack and police and prison officers have all been given briefings and repeated warnings in recent weeks. This is based on intelligence that the dissidents have been planning to mark the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising by renewing hostilities in the North.

This point was reinforced in comments by PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin, who said: "I believe there are people within dissident republican groupings who want to mark this centenary by killing police officers, prison officers and soldiers.

"I am saying that publicly, I am saying it deliberately and I am saying I need the help of the community. That is not inevitable, this does not need to happen, but we need the support of the community."

He said that while the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland had been at "severe" for a number of years, he would currently describe it as "the upper end of severe".

Gardai are aware that dissidents are intent on carrying out attacks to coincide with the 1916 centenary. Gardai carried out raids along the Border last year but did not recover any substantial amounts of the missing Semtex.

It is believed that the dissidents gained access to one of two major Provo arms dumps either last year or before that and have control of a major cache of Semtex. The explosive was given to the IRA by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi in the mid-1980s.

The prison officer who suffered extensive leg injuries on Friday is a former member of the Royal Marines who worked as a trainer in the NI Prison Service's jail and training centre at Hydebank in east Belfast, which houses mainly women and young offenders.

Sources quoted on the news website Belfast Live yesterday said the victim would normally check under his van each morning for bombs.

There have been a number of such attacks in the past decade. One such device killed the PSNI officer Ronan Kerr when it exploded under his car in Co Tyrone in April 2011. A similar device caused massive injury to another young Catholic PSNI officer in Co Antrim in January 2010.

The dissidents are apparently targeting prison officers in conjunction with a series of prison protests over strip searching in the North's main jail at Maghaberry, Co Antrim where more than 50 'DRs', as dissident republicans are termed, are held.

Belfast Live reported that the injured officer did not have time to check under his van on Friday morning as he had spent much of the night on a search and rescue operation and was late for work.

The officer is a voluntary rescue worker and skipper of an in-shore lifeboat. He joined the Prison Service in the North after marrying a local girl whom he had met while he was serving in the Marines in the mid-1980s.

The fact that the injured officer was driving a sturdy van probably saved him from death or more serious injury.

Sunday Independent

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