A huge bomb discovered on the Irish border was meant to kill police officers, it was claimed last night.
The 600lb (272kg) device, made of fertiliser-based homemade explosives, was defused by army bomb disposal experts near Forkhill, a village in South Armagh, an area notorious for republican terrorist activity.
The device was bigger than the Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people and two unborn baby girls in 1998. It was found at the weekend, hidden close to houses, with a command wire running for a mile across the border to a firing point inside the Republic.
The bomb is the most serious threat mounted by republican terrorists since the Real IRA murdered two soldiers and the Continuity IRA murdered a police officer six months ago.
Sam Cordner, the commander of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in Newry and Mourne, said the bomb was aimed at his officers, but had it been detonated it would have demolished nearby houses, killing the occupants.
“There could have been a devastating outcome to this incident,” he said. “The actions of terrorist criminals in planting this device in the Forkhill area put local people and police officers at significant risk. Their actions were reckless and dangerous in the extreme. Their target may have been the police, but they did not care who they killed or injured.”
The alarm was first raised a week ago with a phone call to a local newspaper. Inspector Cordner said the location was “very, very vague”, covering a wide geographic area.
“Police officers were immediately put on the ground, cordoned off the area and moved people from the danger area,” he said.
“Twenty people were evacuated from six homes on Saturday afternoon, some of them were elderly, others families with numerous young children,” he said.
“The bombers were reckless, had the device exploded the houses would have been demolished and those inside killed.”
In January a 300 lb device was defused by army explosives experts in Castlewellan, Co Down. It was thought the bomb was to have been detonated at the Ballykinlar army base outside Newcastle.
In May the components for another bomb containing around 100 lb of home-made explosives were found near Roslea, Co Fermanagh.
Last month the Real IRA mounted a propaganda exercise in Meigh, another village in South Armagh. Men armed with AK47 rifles and a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher set up a checkpoint and handed leaflets out, warning people not to co-operate with the police.
A police patrol car which came across the Real IRA checkpoint by chance drove off, with the chief constable defending their actions.
Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh and a convicted former Provisional IRA member, said he was extremely concerned.
“I challenge those who planted this bomb in the community to come forward and explain why they have done so. How is this furthering the struggle for Irish freedom?” he said.
Danny Kennedy, the Ulster Unionist deputy leader, said that the bomb was “a most worrying find and one that I am deeply alarmed and anxious about”. Dominic Bradley of the Social and Democratic Labour Party said: “This is the most serious threat yet from dissident republicans to the people of South Armagh. Without doubt, there could have been civilian casualties and deaths caused by a bomb of this size.”