After 9 p.m. on Friday a pizza was ordered from a Bridge Street pay phone in Strabane to an address in Mount Sion.
It arrived in Ballycolman at 9.40pm but the driver’s orange Fiat Sedici was hijacked by members of the ‘New IRA’. Just before 10.30 p.m. it was torched on the Evish Road.
The next morning a major security operation was mounted and homes evacuated when a citizen alerted the PSNI to a mortar device in Church View immediately above the Strabane barracks.
Police believe the hijacked pizza car was used by violent republicans in a failed operation to launch shells onto the station through mortar tubes.
Pizza car used in thwarted mortar attack against police
Derry & Strabane District Commander Superintendent Gordon McCalmont, speaking yesterday, said it had been “terrifying” to hear a local mother recount how close her children had been to the explosives.
He explained how the device had been left in a “very unstable condition” close to residential homes and said the “recklessness” of the ‘New IRA’ was “astounding”.
“It was absolutely reckless with total disregard for our community,” he said.
“Our assessment is this was a mortar type device designed to be shot into Strabane station.
“My professional assessment is that, for some reason, it has failed to deploy but it was there set up and ready to go,” he remarked.
Video: 'Terrifying' to hear of proximity of children to primed 'New IRA' mortar that failed to deploy
The senior police officer said the attempted use of such an inexact weapon around residential housing was particularly irresponsible.
“This is something, the control and design of it, that could have went everywhere. There’s a house in the pathway which it has to cross, a domestic house towards Strabane police station. It could have overshot into a domestic home...it was set there and it was sitting overnight for eight to nine hours in this very vulnerable position and it was only that a member of the public found it allowed us to start putting a public safety operation in place.”
Superintendent McCalmont said a series of searches for bomb-making material in Creggan yesterday were not directly linked to the failed mortar attack but that they were targeted at the ‘New IRA’.
He said he could not elaborate on whether the Strabane operation was mounted with support from members in Derry and across the border.
“My view is we have a small group of individuals absolutely intent on inflicting harm on our community. In terms of across the border, as I say, they are living within our communities, small numbers, and not allowing communities to develop and move on,” he said.
The steady frequency of attacks over the past several months has been a source of concern, he acknowledged.
“We are concerned as an organisation. That’s the seventh attack this year of significance and, yeah, it presents us a real challenge in delivering a policing service.”
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The Derry commander said the ‘New IRA’ was trying to recruit new members but refused to say that this had anything to do with Brexit.
“We’re not aligning the upsurge but we recognise that the dissidents have said themselves that they see it as a possible recruitment tool, but we are not aligning this attack with the EU exit at this time,” he said.
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Superintendent McCalmont pointed out that the PSNI, with the help of Mi5, has scored several successes over the past two years by preventing violent attacks from taking place.
“Since 2017 we have disrupted ten attacks in conjunction with our partners in the security services but a key element is community support as we counter the threat posed,” he said.