The Police Service of Northern Ireland has dealt a huge blow to the new IRA with the capture of five primed mortar rockets that were to be fired within minutes at a Derry police station.

Security sources told the Guardian on Monday that two of the three men detained in the security operation leading to the seizure of the mortars were major players in armed dissident republicanism.

“This is a major coup against the new IRA,” one security officer said. “This pair are key operators in Derry and the north-west. This would have been one of the biggest operations dissident republicans have organised and the fact that it was thwarted is a big blow to their morale alongside the loss of personnel and weaponry.”

Earlier a senior police officer in the city confirmed that a van with its roof cut out was on its way to fire the mortars at one of the main Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stations in Derry. He said the mortars were only minutes from being fired at their target.

The security operation, which began on Sunday night when the vehicle was stopped on the Letterkenny Road, resulted in three men in their 30s being detained – two at the scene, and another in a house during follow-up searches.

The van and a motorbike which was following the vehicle when it was intercepted remained at the scene on Monday morning.

Around 100 families had to leave their homes while army technical officers dealt with the live mortar rounds.

A PSNI spokesman said three men had been taken to Antrim serious crime suite where they were being questioned.

PSNI Ch Supt Stephen Cargin said dissident republicans opposed to the peace process were on their way to attack a police station. He said it was a “reckless attack on the city of Derry”.

He said there was “no doubt that they would have caused mass casualties” if the van with its deadly payload had not been stopped.

It is understood the attempted sortie was the work of the new IRA, the coalition of anti-ceasefire republican groups that was formed last summer.

The SDLP assembly member for Derry, Pat Ramsey, said he believed the mortar bombs were being transported from across the border in County Donegal into Derry.

Ramsey said he was appalled that during the security operation youths threw a petrol bomb at a police patrol car, although no one was injured in that incident.

“Older people and very disabled people have had to be moved from their homes. There was a lady, a double amputee and two disabled people who needed assistance of an ambulance to get them out,” he said.

“This is the distress that the dissidents are causing to their own people in their own communities.”

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, commended the police and army technical officers for dealing with the mortar bombs.

Speaking from Letterkenny in Co Donegal, just across the border from Derry, where he is attending the British-Irish parliamentary assembly, he said: “Once again only the bravery of the police and security services, and the army bomb disposal team, has prevented loss of life and injury.

“It shows again the need to be vigilant about the serious threat that exists in Northern Ireland.

“These terrorists who wish to destroy the peace and progress represent no one and offer nothing. We must all continue to work together to defeat them.”

Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, who lives in Derry, said: “I want to pay tribute to the PSNI for preventing what could have been a terrible loss of life in an attack which was clearly designed to damage the peace process.

“Increasingly people are providing information which is the proper thing to do so that we can thwart the efforts of those who would try to destroy the peace that has been built up and which is so admired throughout the world.”

The new IRA has been trying to carry out a high-profile terrorist attack in Derry for several months. The level of terrorist threat is regarded as high at the moment during the 2013 Derry UK City of Culture and the G8 international conference in Co Fermanagh in June. Security sources say they fear the new IRA will use both major events to organise a “spectacular” terrorist attack.

The capture of the mortars and the specially converted van that was to be used as a launchpad for the rockets will bring back memories of one of the biggest terrorist atrocities in the Troubles. In February 1985 nine police officers were killed when mortar bombs were fired into Newry police station. Twenty-five people including civilian workers in the station were also injured in that attack.

Last week the PSNI found a number of mortar rockets in an empty house in west Belfast, signifying that the security forces have made inroads in terms of informants and surveillance on dissident republican groups across Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, police were dealing with a suspect device in the Dunclug area of Ballymena on Monday morning.

Northern Ireland police hail ‘major coup’ after foiled IRA mortar plot – The Guardian
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