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Originally published Monday, March 4, 2013 at 8:14 AM

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Londonderry cops stop IRA mortars in van, arrest 3

Northern Ireland police stopped an Irish Republican Army splinter group from firing mortar shells at a police station in an attack that could have killed both officers and nearby civilians, a senior officer said Monday. Detectives interrogated three men suspected of involvement.

Associated Press

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DUBLIN —

Northern Ireland police stopped an Irish Republican Army splinter group from firing mortar shells at a police station in an attack that could have killed both officers and nearby civilians, a senior officer said Monday. Detectives interrogated three men suspected of involvement.

Police tracking the attackers' movements rammed the minivan containing four mortar tubes and shells as it drove into Northern Ireland's second-largest city, Londonderry, on Sunday night. They arrested the minivan driver, a motorcyclist trailing the minivan, and another man in a follow-up search of a home linked to the mortars' construction and storage.

More than 100 homes were evacuated overnight as British Army experts using a remote-controlled robot defused the four mortar rounds, which officers said were ready to be fired. It would have been the first vehicle-based mortar attack in Northern Ireland since 1994 when the Provisional IRA, inventor of the homemade weapons systems, began an open-ended cease-fire.

Police Chief Superintendent Stephen Cargin said he was sure that IRA die-hards were about to fire a mortar salvo at one of Londonderry's police stations. The mortar rounds would have been fired through a specially cut hole in the van roof.

Cargin didn't specify whether the mortars were designed to be triggered using a timer or a remote-control switch. The minivan appeared to have been driven from across the nearby Republic of Ireland border in County Donegal, barely 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, because the minivan had Donegal license plates.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, addressing a conference of British and Irish parliamentarians Monday in Donegal, lauded the police operation for preventing "a potentially disastrous attack."

And Martin McGuinness, a former Provisional IRA commander in Londonderry who today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's unity government, denounced those IRA members who were still plotting gun and bomb attacks as politically irrelevant racketeers, a reference to their involvement in smuggling and extortion. He said their violence could achieve only one thing: "More people in prison."

"This is not about any attempt to advance a united Ireland," McGuinness said. "This is a vanity trip by those involved, and more about money and ego than patriotism."

No group claimed responsibility. Multiple IRA splinter groups opposed to Northern Ireland's peace agreement are active in Londonderry.

The mortar seizure offers yet more evidence that today's militants retain some Provisional IRA weapons stockpiles and are tapping the Provisionals' engineering skills. Last week Belfast police seized a Soviet-era rocket launcher that was linked to the Provisional IRA's biggest weapons shipments from Libya in the mid-1980s, a consignment that was supposed to have been surrendered in full as part of the Provisional IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence.

The Provisional IRA's homemade bombs and mortars often were more destructive and lethal than smuggled military-grade weaponry. Its biggest vehicle-mounted mortars were kicknamed "barracks busters," while horizontally fired mortars placed by roadsides fired armor-piercing rounds into passing police and army vehicles.

In 1985, the outlawed group dropped a mortar shell on a police base in the border town of Newry. The blast killed nine officers dining in the base's cafeteria - the worst single slaying of officers from the entire Northern Ireland conflict.

In 1991, the Provisionals fired three mortar shells into the back yard of Downing Street, the official London residence of the British prime minister, during a Cabinet meeting. Only one round detonated, shattering windows but injuring nobody.

In 1994, mortar attacks on the runways of Heathrow Airport shut down Europe's busiest air hub. The Provisional IRA had placed the timer-triggered weapons in vehicles parked in nearby parking many days beforehand.

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