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World - Europe

N. Ireland deeply shaken by car bombing

People are in chaos just after the bomb exploded in a crowded market area  

At least 28 dead, more than 200 injured

August 15, 1998
Web posted at: 9:13 p.m. EDT (0113 GMT)

OMAGH, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Just as a permanent peace in Northern Ireland seemed tantalizingly close, one of the worst terrorist atrocities in three decades of sectarian strife has left the British-ruled province deeply shocked and saddened.

At least 28 people died and more than 200 others were injured Saturday when a car bomb exploded in a crowded market area of Omagh, a town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Belfast. Among the dead were an 18-month-old toddler and at least four other children.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing. But initial suspicion has fallen on splinter groups from the Irish Republican Army who oppose the recent Northern Ireland peace agreement.


Reaction to Omagh blast

In an especially cruel twist, a caller warning about the impending bombing misled police with the wrong location, and authorities unwittingly evacuated people directly into the area where the car bomb exploded.

"We have had men, women and children slaughtered here this afternoon, slaughtered by murderers who wanted to murder ... who gave us a totally inaccurate warning," said Northern Ireland Police Chief Ronnie Flanagan.

Witnesses describe 'carnage'

"I saw bodies lying everywhere," said one witness, Dorothy Boyle. "The bodies were lying there with water running over them from burst pipes. There were limbs lying about that had been blown off people."

"The carnage, the children, a young baby -- pure black, unrecognizable," said another witness, Frank Hancock, describing what he saw. "A young girl down a manhole that we had to pull out. A young lad burning."

Survivors used blown-off doors as makeshift stretchers for the victims. The local Tyrone County Hospital overflowed with wounded, and helicopters and ambulances evacuated other victims to hospitals in Belfast and Londonderry.

"There have been extensive shrapnel injuries to children and adults and traumatic amputations of lower limbs and upper limbs and multiple fractures," said Dr. Clive Russell at Tyrone County Hospital. "We have had some serious burn injuries which have had to be transferred." He said some children had limbs amputated.

Suspicion falls on IRA dissidents

The 200-kilogram (500-pound) bomb went off in a market area crowded with weekend shoppers and revelers attending a festival in the religiously mixed community of 20,000 people.

Suspicion has fallen on Irish republican dissident groups -- who oppose British rule -- because of the timing and location of the blast. Saturday is the 29th anniversary of the British government's deployment of troops in the province. And the blast was near Omagh's courthouse, seen by some as a symbol of British rule in the province.

A phone warning to the British Broadcasting Corporation's newsroom in Belfast claimed that a bomb was left outside the courthouse on High Street, at the west end of town. Police began directing people away from the area, many of them east down Market Street to where the bomb exploded 40 minutes later, behind the security cordon.

Slabs of concrete, shards of glass and piles of broken timber littered the scene, which was sealed off by police and army troops to conduct an intensive forensic investigation.

"It was devastation, pure devastation, human bodies just torn to pieces," said Frank Pancott, another witness. "What I saw I never want to see again."

The bomb went off two months after voters in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic approved a peace agreement forged between the British and Irish governments and eight provincial political parties representing both the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The agreement endorses Northern Ireland's status as a British-controlled province, but it provides for a power-sharing assembly with representatives from both Protestant and Catholic parties. It also strengthens links between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

While the IRA has signed on to the accord, some dissident groups who have split from the IRA oppose the peace plan and have vowed to fight it. Dissidents have planted several car bombs in recent months, which caused many injuries, but until Saturday, no deaths.

Saturday's terrorist action had the highest death toll of any attack in Northern Ireland during nearly 30 years of sectarian violence. Previously, the deadliest incident in the province had occurred in August 1979, when 18 British soldiers were killed by an IRA truck bomb in Warrenpoint.

The only terrorist incident that led to a larger loss of life came in May 1974, when 35 people died after three car bombs were set off by a pro-British Protestant paramilitary group. However, those attacks occurred in Dublin and Monaghan in the Irish Republic, rather than Northern Ireland.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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