LONDON: A senior Northern Ireland police officer was in critical but stable condition in a hospital after two masked men shot him after he coached a children’s soccer team, authorities said Thursday.
A dissident Irish Republican Army splinter group is suspected of shooting the detective Wednesday night after a kids’ soccer session at a sports complex in Omagh, about 60 miles (nearly 100 kilometers) west of Belfast. Three men were arrested Thursday on suspicion of attempted murder.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland named the wounded officer as Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, a well-known officer who has led investigations into murders, organized crime and dissident paramilitary groups.
The leader of the police force, Chief Constable Simon Byrne, called the shooting “a brazen and calculated attack.” “Our thoughts are with John and his family as he fights for his life in hospital today,” Byrne told reporters.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said two gunmen attacked Caldwell as he put soccer balls into the trunk of his car, accompanied by his young son. Caldwell had just coached an under-15s soccer team.
McEwan told BBC Radio Ulster that “the primary focus is on violent dissident republicans and within that, there is a primary focus as well on New IRA.” The force said three men, ages 38, 45 and 47, were arrested and being questioned at a Belfast police station.
Politicians from across Ireland’s political divide, and the leaders of the U.K. and Ireland, condemned the attack.
The leaders of the five biggest parties, including Irish nationalists Sinn Fein — which was allied with the IRA during Northern Ireland’s decades of Catholic-Protestant violence — and the Democratic Unionist Party, issued a rare joint statement to condemn the violence.
“We speak for the overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder,” they said.
“There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace.”
More than 3,000 people were killed during three decades of violence in Northern Ireland involving Irish republican and British loyalist paramilitaries and U.K. security forces.
The 1998 Good Friday peace accord largely ended the conflict, known as “the Troubles.” Major Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups gave up violence and disarmed, but small IRA splinter groups continue to mount sporadic attacks on security forces.
In November, a homemade bomb exploded under a police car in the town of Strabane. The two officers inside escaped injury.
In April 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead while reporting on rioting in Londonderry, also known as Derry. The New IRA said one of its gunmen hit her by accident while targeting police.
The last fatal attack on a police officer in Northern Ireland was the April 2011 killing of Constable Ronan Kerr, who died when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car in Omagh.
Omagh was also the site of Northern Ireland’s deadliest attack, an August 1998 car bombing that killed 29 people. A dissident republican group called the Real IRA claimed responsibility for that attack.
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