By Brendan Anderson
OMAGH, Co. Tyrone — The Real IRA, the Republican splinter group opposed to the peace agreement, has claimed responsibility for last Saturday’s deadly car bombing here and apologized for the loss of civilian life.
In a statement to the Irish News Dublin office, a caller using recognized code words said he was calling on behalf of the Oglaigh na hEireann, The Irish Volunteers, and said that the target of the bomb had been commercial and had not been meant to cause civilian injuries.
“We offer apologies to these civilians. It was not our intention at any time to kill any civilians,” the statement said.
The group claims it gave three separate warnings about the bomb and 40 minutes notice, saying that the bomb was 300-400 yards from the courthouse. But their account is at odds with that given by the news organizations who received the warnings.
The Real IRA statement came as the first victim of the horrific explosion was buried Tuesday morning and the RUC continued to question five suspects taken in during dawn raids soon after the explosion.
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All 28 victims of the massacre — including two Spaniards, a schoolboy and his teacher who were visiting the town while on holiday in nearby County Donegal — have now been identified. The dead included three generations of one family, a grandmother, her pregnant daughter and her granddaughter.
The little market town now faces a week of heartbreak as the other victims of Saturday’s explosion are laid to rest.
One of the five suspects being questioned by RUC detectives at Castlereagh Interrogation Center is the son of an Omagh councilor who is also chairman of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which is opposed to the Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement hammered out by British and Irish politicians in April. The suspect, Shane Mackey, 19, is the son of Francie Mackey.
The Committee shares the political views of the hardline breakaway republican group, the “Real IRA,” or the “True IRA,” which Tuesday admitted responsibility for the Omagh outrage. This group refuses to recognize the cease-fire called by the mainstream IRA and has vowed to fight on until the British announce an immediate withdrawal from Ireland.
The group is believed to number no more than 30 volunteers but includes highly experienced bombmakers and tacticians in its ranks. The True IRA is also believed to be well-armed and has access to substantial amounts of Semtex high explosives.
In a significant move, Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, and his colleague Martin McGuinness visited the families of the bereaved in Omagh on Sunday.
Adams distanced his mainstream republican movement from the massacre by unequivocally condemned the bombing and calling on the perpetrators to admit responsibility.
An emergency meeting at Stormont on Monday was attended by Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, John O’Donoghue, the Republic’s justice minister, and police chiefs from both sides of the border.
Mowlam and O’Donoghue emerged from the four-hour meeting to announce what they termed a “three-pronged” package aimed at stamping out the escalating level of violence being carried out by dissident republican groups.
The two politicians confirmed that they had discussed reintroducing internment without trial, a move that has, in the past, been used almost exclusively against republicans and which led to greater violence because it incensed the north’s nationalist population.
While details of the new package were not made public for security reasons, it is known that one proposal is for increased cooperation between the Gardai and the RUC in border counties. This will include more undercover surveillance of suspects and joint Irish-British intelligence operations.
The British government will also introduce a legal system that makes it easier to obtain convictions against republican dissidents. This move — a form of which is already on the statute books in the Republic — is likely to mean that a suspect can be jailed if a senior police officer “believes him or her to be” a member of a proscribed organization.
Mowlam said both governments were considering a “host of other measures” that would have to be checked out by legal experts before they could be implemented. The measures will also have to go to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for approval.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday Ahern demanded ceasefire announcements from the three militant Republican groups opposed to the peace process — the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and INLA. Ahern said he wants the announcements made before a planned meeting with Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble this week.
“It is insanity for them to go against the wishes of the Irish people and continue to engage in violence,” he said.
Ahern welcomed the statement by the Irish Republican Socialist Party — the small political party associated with INLA — giving a signal that they wanted a ceasefire. But he said it was time the other two groups declared their position.