Terrorists plotting a mortar bomb massacre were stopped with minutes to spare when police rammed their van.
Today three men were in custody in Northern Ireland.
It is suspected the attack is the work of dissident republicans who have not signed up to the peace process.
Police in Londonderry intercepted the small white Citroen carrying four bombs, which were “primed and ready to go”.
The vehicle contained a launch pad and had its roof cut open.
Officers said the intention was to blitz a police station.
Senior police in the city believe the van was on its way to be parked near their HQ before the devices were triggered.
Chief Supt Stephen Cargin said there could have been carnage if the mortars had been launched in the UK’s City of Culture for 2013.
He told reporters: “I have no doubt they could have caused mass casualties.
“We could have been looking at mass murder if they had hit their intended target.”
Police evacuated more than 100 homes after finding the explosives just after 8pm on Sunday. An Army bomb disposal team moved in.
Some officers helping in the operation to lead residents to safety came under attack from youths.
A petrol bomb was thrown at a patrol car by a gang but nobody was hurt.
East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said: “We were 10 minutes away from disaster.
“That is how close we were to a really bad night in Londonderry. The mortars were ready to be fired. There could have been dozens killed.”
The three men in custody tonight are all in their 30s.
One was driving the van when officers swooped at the dramatic climax of an undercover operation.
A second suspect was riding a motorbike beside the van and the third was arrested later last night at a house in Londonderry.
Mr Cargin said of the alleged plotters: “They were prepared to drive through a built-up area of the city to carry out this attack and cause mass fatalities.
“These devices were primed. They are crude home-made devices and there is no way people who made these bombs would be certain they would have hit their target.
“There would have been mass murder of police and serious damage to property.
“Good police work prevented this. If these devices had not been intercepted we would have been looking at a completely different picture.
“It is a very worrying development. Dissident republicans want to take us back to a place no one wants to go to.”
The van is believed to have crossed the border from Ireland just a few miles away and may have been on its way towards the Strand Road, site of the city’s main police station.
Social Democrat and Labour Party MP for nearby Foyle, Mark Durkan, said: “These mortar bombs are not precision devices. God only knows where any one of those four devices could have gone or the damage it could have done.
“We have all been spared an awful catastrophe, not only in physical terms to buildings or our infrastructure but also in human terms.”
Officers said the mortars were similar to those used by the Provisional IRA before they halted their terrorist campaign in July 2005.
Nine men were killed when a police station in Newry, Co Down, was blitzed in February 1985.
Mortars were also used to attack Downing Street in 1991 and Heathrow airport in 1994.
Minutes from a massacre: Police stop terrorist bomb plot with moments to spare – Mirror.co.uk
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