1 of 3 | Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne pledged Thursday to capture two attackers who gunned down one of his senior officers as he was coaching children soccer. Photo courtesy of PSNI.
Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Three men were arrested Thursday in connection with a suspected terror attack at a crowded sports complex in the town of Omagh that left a senior off-duty police officer critically injured.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said three men aged 38, 45 and 47 were arrested under the Terrorism Act and were being questioned by police in the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell.
PSNI said Caldwell was shot "a number of times" as he coached young people playing soccer just before 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
"The gunmen fired from close range in the busy sports training area which could also quite easily have killed or seriously injured children who were present at the time of the shooting," Assistant Chief Constable for Crime Department Mark McEwan said.
The PSNI say they believe the gunmen made off in a small black car that was later found burned out at Racolpa Road, just outside Omagh.
Caldwell sustained "a number of bullet wounds to his torso" and was taken to a hospital where he underwent surgery.
"The officer's condition remains critical but stable," McEwan said.
The police have not commented on a motive for the shooting but suspicion is falling on dissident republicans due to Caldwell's high profile performing media duties as the lead officer on several high-profile cases, including dissident republican violence and gang murders.
The Chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Liam Kelly, condemned the attack as "barbaric and cold-blooded."
Chief Constable Simon Byrne, the country's top security official, strongly condemned the attack and pledged to capture the gunmen.
"My thoughts are with him, his family and his colleagues.
"We will relentlessly pursue those responsible. They have nothing to offer our community," Byrne said in a statement on his official Twitter account.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was "appalled by the disgraceful shooting".
"There is no place in our society for those who seek to harm public servants protecting communities," he said.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said it was an "outrageous and shameful attack" and added: "I unreservedly condemn this reprehensible attempt to murder a police officer."
Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson denounced those responsible as "cowardly."
The so-called New IRA, a splinter group that sprang out of the IRA as it prepared to lay down its weapons as part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that brought peace to Northern Ireland, has continued to target police officers.
The location is also significant.
Omagh is the scene of the deadliest incident of the three-decade-long troubles when the New IRA detonated a car bomb in the town in August 1998 killing 29 people and injuring 220, the repercussions of which rumble on today.
Earlier this month, the British government launched an inquiry into the bombing.
Announcing the independent statutory inquiry in the House Commons, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said it was in response to a 2021 High Court judgement that ruled arguments that the tragedy could have been prevented were plausible.
"The Omagh bomb was a horrific terrorist atrocity committed by the Real IRA, which caused untold damage to the families of those who were tragically killed and injured. Its impact was felt not just in Northern Ireland, but across the world," he said.