LONDON // The spectre of sectarian violence has returned to haunt Northern Ireland after two British soldiers were killed in a gun attack on their barracks. Four other men were seriously wounded, with one of them remaining in critical condition last night, when at least two gunmen opened fire Saturday night at the entrance to the Massereene army base, 25km north of Belfast. Though the attack was roundly condemned by politicians from all sides in the province yesterday, there were concerns that the attack heralded a new and potentially divisive phase after a decade of significant progress in healing old wounds. Police in Northern Ireland, where mainly Roman Catholic nationalists have a long-term aim of unification with the Irish state to the south and where mainly Protestant loyalists want to remain part of the UK, have been warning for months of increased activity by armed, dissident republican groups. On Saturday night, those fears were realised when two gunmen, accompanied by a third man in a waiting car, opened fire with what a spokesman from the Police Service of Northern Ireland described as "automatic rifles". They had timed their attack to coincide with the delivery of pizzas to the barracks in County Antrim, where members of the British army engineering corps were spending their last few days in the United Kingdom before deployment to Afghanistan. As the barrack doors were opened for the food delivery, the gunmen opened fire, killing two soldiers, both in their early 20s, and injuring two colleagues along with the two delivery men. "I have no doubt in my mind this was an attempt at mass murder," said Chief Supt Derek Williamson yesterday. "Last night, two very young men lost their lives in a very callous and a very ruthless attack by terrorists who had no thought last night for anyone who was in the vicinity. "It's clear from what we know at this stage that the terrorists not only wanted to kill soldiers who were there last night, but also tried to kill those two pizza delivery men. "The gunmen, having fired an initial volley of shots, moved forward when people were on the ground and fired additional shots at those people on the ground." As police yesterday began examining a car found abandoned in the nearby town of Randalstown, politicians expressed horror at what was seen as an attack on the peace process, which began in 1994 when the Provisional IRA announced a ceasefire that eventually became permanent three years later. The process of reconciliation dragged on over several difficult years but culminated last summer with politicians from both extremes forming an effective power-sharing government. However, dissident republican groups have remained active and, last year, carried out gun attacks on police officers in Londonderry and Dungannon. Sir Hugh Orde, the chief constable, has expressed increasing concern in recent months that small but extremely violent groups of dissidents were preparing to strike. Last month, a 114kg bomb was defused close to an army base in County Down. Saturday's shooting was the first occasion in 12 years on which a British soldier had been killed in the province. Gordon Brown, the prime minister, yesterday condemned the "evil" attack and swore that the peace process would not be derailed. "I think the whole country is shocked and outraged at the evil and cowardly attacks on soldiers serving their country," he said. "We will do everything in our power to make sure that Northern Ireland is safe and secure and I assure you we will bring these murderers to justice." Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, also spoke out against the shooting, describing it as an attack on the peace process that was "wrong and counterproductive". He added: "Those responsible have no support [and] no strategy to achieve a united Ireland. Their intention is to bring British soldiers back on to the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict." The UK government certainly has no plans to put soldiers back on to the streets. At the height of "the Troubles" in the 1980s, 27,000 British service personnel were based in Northern Ireland. Now, the number is about 5,000 and is due to drop even more in the coming years with the Massereene base itself scheduled to close next year. Members of dissident republican groups, though committed and violent, are not thought to be large in number. The groups do not have the extensive weapon stockpiles hitherto at the disposal of the IRA. They also enjoy little support among the general population, which has enjoyed increased prosperity since shootings, bombings and sectarian attacks ceased to be the feature of life that they were for the last three decades of the last century. Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the attack was a "terrible reminder of the events of the past". "It is the duty of everyone to ensure these people are defeated." email@example.com
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