Northern Ireland police chief: Rise in violence was anticipated

British and Irish leaders condemned the shootings of the two British soldiers, who were bound for Afghanistan.

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DUBLIN, Ireland – Police believe dissident Irish nationalists attempting to smash the decade-old peace in Northern Ireland might have been behind the shooting deaths Saturday night of two British soldiers.

The soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting at Massereene Army base in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Four others, including two pizza delivery men, were injured when gunmen opened fire. According to local media reports, the soldies were wearing desert fatigues and were scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan Sunday.

The Real IRA, a breakaway republican group with a history of violence, reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call Sunday evening to Ireland's Sunday Tribune newspaper. The group is also behind the 1998 Omagh car bombing that killed 29 people.

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Although the attack itself was not anticipated, security services have warned that violent groups remain active. A peace accord in 1998 ended sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, but dissident republican groups refused to sign this so-called Good Friday Accord.

Officials say they were worried that such an attack would take place. "Over the last nine months, we have consistently said that the threat in Northern Ireland to police and the military has increased," Northern Ireland's chief constable, Hugh Orde told reporters.

Politicians from both sides have condemned the shootings. A statement from Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams says, "Last night's attack was an attack on the peace process. It was wrong and counter productive. There should be an end to actions like the one in Antrim last night."

Sinn Féin's partners in government, the Democratic Unionist party also condemned the attack. Leader Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's first minister, said: "These murders were a futile act by those who command no public support and have no prospect of success in their campaign. It will not succeed. I offer my sympathy to the families of those who were killed or injured and make it clear that we will not be diverted from the direction which Northern Ireland has taken."

Mick Fealty, a Belfast-born commentator on Irish affairs, says that dissident groups are small and isolated, but that they are very real.

"The IRA's campaign proved a couple of things: Firstly, you can't bomb and shoot the British out of Ireland and, secondly, you don't need a lot of support on the ground to run a campaign of violence," Mr. Fealty says.

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