ANTRIM, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - Police in Northern Ireland were hunting gunmen from the Real IRA on Monday after the republican splinter group said it killed two soldiers in the worst attack in the province for over a decade.
The attackers shot the soldiers as they collected pizzas at the gates of an army base near Antrim, a commuter town outside Belfast, late on Saturday. Four people, including two pizza delivery men, were wounded.
A caller to the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune newspaper claimed responsibility for the shooting in the name of the South Antrim brigade of the Real IRA.
“He said he made, and the Real IRA made, no apology for targeting British soldiers while they remained what he called occupying the north of Ireland,” Suzanne Breen, a journalist at the newspaper, told Sky News.
The two soldiers who were killed were in their 20s and due to fly out for duty in Afghanistan.
The Real IRA, an Irish Republican Army splinter group, carried out the deadliest single bombing of Northern Ireland’s sectarian “Troubles” in the market town of Omagh in August 1998. Twenty-nine people were killed.
Northern Ireland’s former foes across the sectarian divide vowed the killings in Antrim would not plunge the province into a new cycle of violence after the relative peace and prosperity ushered in by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“Those who are involved in these types of actions need to stop and recognise that the popular will of the people of Ireland is for peaceful and democratic change,” Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told Reuters.
“Quite clearly the efforts of these people are to destroy the peace process. They will not succeed. Their efforts are totally and absolutely futile,” added McGuinness a former IRA guerrilla commander turned peace negotiator.
The 1998 Good Friday accord ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland in which more than 3,000 people were killed, including hundreds of British soldiers. However, sporadic violence, much of it crime-related, has continued.
The IRA, which sought a united Ireland and drew support from the minority Roman Catholic community and Protestant guerrilla groups agreed to ceasefires under the deal.
The shooting followed a police warning last week that the threat from IRA splinter groups was again high.
The Real IRA, which gained recruits and weapons from IRA members disillusioned with the peace process in the 1990s, went to ground after the devastating Omagh attack.
It has resurfaced in recent years and claimed responsibility for shooting two policemen in 2007 in attacks seen as designed to dissuade Catholics from joining the police service in Northern Ireland.
At the end of January police defused a 300-pound (140 kg) car bomb been left by dissident republicans in a Northern Irish village.
Saturday’s victims were collecting the pizza at the Massereene barracks near Antrim, 15 miles (25 km) northwest of Belfast, when the gunmen pulled up in a vehicle and opened fire.
After an initial burst of gunfire, the attackers walked up and shot the victims as they lay on the ground, Irish state broadcaster RTE said.
Police said one of the delivery men, a Polish national, was critically injured.
There are now a maximum of 5,000 military personnel based in Northern Ireland, ready for deployment worldwide and providing support for the police only in case of extreme disorder as units do across the rest of the United Kingdom.
Troop numbers peaked at 27,000 in the early 1970s when soldiers patrolled the streets of cities such as Belfast.
Additional reporting by Andras Gergely and Stefano Ambrogi; writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Dominic Evans