A dissident republican attempt to launch mortar bombs at a Derry police station could have led to “mass murder,” according to the city’s PSNI commander.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Stephen Cargin was speaking following the discovery of four primed mortars in a Citroen Berlingo van at the junction of Letterkenny Road, Foyle Road and Lone Moor Road at 8.15pm on Sunday in what appeared to be a pre-planned police operation.
The roof of the van had been cut away in preparation for firing the mortars, which were primed and ready in four mortar tubes, police said.
The van was travelling into the city from the direction of the border. Three men in their 30s were arrested in connection with the incident, including the driver of the van and the rider of a motorcycle. A third man was arrested later at a separate location.
More than 100 people were evacuated from their homes while bomb disposal experts examined the mortars.
The attempted bomb attack was widely condemned by local political and civic leaders.
CS Cargin said the devices were live, “ready to go” in mortar tubes. He stated that the most likely target was one of the city’s PSNI stations and that an attack had been “minutes away.”
He said dissident republicans were responsible and branded them “absolutely reckless.”
“We believe the van was on the way to one of the police stations in the city and the intended target was police officers. I have no doubt that the capability of those devices would have resulted in mass casualties, potentially mass murder.
“With these devices - home made devices - there is no easy way of knowing if they would have hit their target so therefore it could have been indiscriminate.”
Chief Superintendant Cargin refused to be drawn on claims that Sunday night’s police operation was intelligence-led, describing it as part of an “ongoing proactive operation against dissident republicans.”
“I can assure the public, as this demonstrates, we will be putting all our resources against people like these dissident republicans.
“We will do everything possible to deter them and to detect them.
“We targeted the right resources to target this vehicle. What it highlights is that we have the support of the overwhelming majority of the community in Northern Ireland.
“People are supporting us, people are talking to us, people are giving us information.
“The lifeblood of any police service across the world is good intelligence. The community is supporting us and we will continue to act on information,” he said.
Despite the fact that the van containing the mortar bombs was intercepted on a main road from Donegal into Derry, less than three miles from the border, the senior PSNI officer also said he was not in a position to confirm if the vehicle, which had Dublin registration plates, had crossed the border.
CS Cargin also said he could not confirm if An Garda Siochana were involved in the operation which led to the interception of the van.