TWO police officers had to dive for cover after two improvised grenades exploded metres from where they were standing, it was revealed today.
They came under attack while responding to an emergency call out in a loyalist area of north Belfast during the early hours of this morning
Dissident republicans, who were behind a gun and pipe bomb attack on a police patrol in west Belfast less than a fortnight ago, have been blamed for the murder bid.
PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) Chief Inspector Andy Freeburn said it was a blatant attempt to kill police.
"We are extremely shocked that we nearly lost the lives of two of our officers last night.
"We are just so fortunate that we are not dealing with the loss of life of our officers or indeed anybody else that was residing in this residential area."
The grenades exploded at about 2.45am as the two police officers, who are young but have a number of years experience with the PSNI, alighted from their armoured patrol vehicle.
"The officers parked their vehicle, got out and within seconds of that happening two pipe bombs arrived very close to them. They had a very short space of time to take cover before these devices detonated.
"They were large pipe bomb type devices. When we say pipe bomb we are talking about an improvised grenade. This would have had the potential to if not kill seriously injure officers if they had been any closer to them," said Chief Inspector Freeburn.
The PSNI is still investigating whether the 999 call was an attempt to lure the police patrol to their death. They have declined to release further information about the nature of the telephone call.
"It could be the case that this was a genuine but equally it could be the case that this was a come-on designed to play on the protective instincts of police officers. That is a very strong line of inquiry at the moment," added Chief Inspector Freeburn.
The two officers were physically uninjured but have been left extremely shaken by their ordeal.
"They were out last night doing the job that they love doing and somebody made an attempt on their life and that is absolutely despicable.
"The officers are very deeply shocked. I do not it has quite sunk in but I was really struck by was not only how courageous those officers are but how committed they are. This is not going to deflect them from their duty. They are shocked and now back home with their families but we hope that they will return to work soon," said Chief Inspector Freeburn.
The threat from republican terrorists in Northern Ireland has been severe for some time. Officers already patrol north Belfast in armoured liveried or unmarked police cars. Chief Inspector Freeburn said there were no plans for officers to use only armoured Landrovers when responding to call-outs.
The PSNI said the the local community had provided information but detectives were urging anyone who saw anything suspicious at the time of the attack to come forward.
Up to 20 homes had to be evacuated because of concerns about secondary devices.
Residents including pensioners and a pregnant woman were moved to the nearby Ballysillan Leisure Centre.
Sections of the Crumlin Road remained sealed off this morning as Army bomb experts carried out investigations.
The attack has been condemned by representatives across the political spectrum.
North Belfast's DUP MP Nigel Dodds described the perpetrators as the enemies of society.
"There can be no doubt that those who planned and carried out this attack intended to cause serious injury or death to police officers. It is a huge relief that no injuries were caused but this will have been a deeply shocking experience for them. This is a grim reminder of the threat of terrorist attack that the PSNI have to operate under as they respond to emergency calls and protect the community.
"Those responsible for this murderous attack care nothing for who suffers from their terrorism. They are prepared to put any police officer and any member of the public in danger of serious or fatal injuries," he said.
SDLP policing spokesman, Conall McDevitt said those behind the attack were intent on murder.
"This was a serious attack and those behind it were clearly intent on taking the life of police officers serving the entire community. They and their actions will be condemned across Ireland. They represent nobody and their violence is futile," he said.
Policing Board chairman Brian Rea said he was grateful no one was injured.
"This was an attempt to murder police officers and I am grateful that those behind this attack did not succeed. Whilst badly shaken, the officers were not injured and that is the most important thing.
These officers were responding to a call for assistance and in luring officers in this way there was also complete disregard for the safety of people in the community. The condemnations from within the local community are very welcome and I would urge anyone with information bring it to the police," he said.
Ross Hussey who also sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board added his condemnation.