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Bad Detonator Saves London From a Powerful IRA Bomb

By Fred Barbash
The Washington Post
LONDON

Only a failed detonator saved London from a powerful Irish Republican Army bomb Wednesday night, ending speculation that several relatively weak IRA bombs recently meant the terrorist organization was pursuing a merely symbolic "calling card" strategy.

Police said Thursday that the bomb, planted under a Thames River bridge, was large enough to have wrecked a major traffic artery leading into central London and to have killed or maimed any passersby or police who had responded to the scene after a warning a half-hour earlier. A detonating device did explode - at about 11 p.m. - but it failed to set off the explosive itself, 30 pounds of the chemical Semtex, attached to the underside of the Hammersmith Bridge.

The attempt occurred as the IRA's legal political wing, Sinn Fein, announced it will participate in elections May 30 in Northern Ireland for a "peace forum," sponsored by the British and Irish governments to help achieve a permanent settlement of the province's sectarian troubles. Wednesday was also the 80th anniversary of the start of the Easter Rising, the 1916 rebellion against British rule in Dublin.

Police say investigations in the past few months have revealed that the IRA was preparing bombings in mainland Britain even as President Clinton was shaking hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Belfast during Clinton's visit there last winter.

The IRA declared an end to a nearly 18-month cease-fire in its long war to end British rule of Northern Ireland with a blast in February that killed two people, injured dozens and caused millions of dollars of damage at London's Docklands development at the eastern edge of the city.

Since then, it has exploded or attempted to explode at least four other bombs in London. One was deactivated in a phone booth in the theater district. One blew up prematurely, killing an IRA operative on a bus and leading police to an IRA bomb factory here.

The last two - in a recycling bin near a cemetery and in the yard of an unoccupied home in west London last week - did little damage. The locations, which carried no particular symbolism, and the small size of the bombs, led to a variety of theories: that the organization was only reminding authorities of its presence, that it was just practicing for a "spectacular," or that it had grown rusty or had had its work disrupted by vigorous police work.

Whatever the motives or mishaps of the earlier efforts, police sources said the Hammersmith Bridge attempt demonstrated the deadly intent of the IRA.

Police said investigations of the Docklands bombing and the haul of intelligence from the home of the dead IRA bus rider, Edward O'Brien, have shown that the terrorist group was laying the groundwork for a resumption of bombing in London before and during Clinton's visit to London and Northern Ireland in November.

Police traced a truck involved in the Docklands bombing to rural Northern Ireland, where they said they discovered it was being refitted for its mission between November 1995 and January.

Investigators said a "considerable quantity of bomb-making equipment," including Semtex, detonators and incendiary equipment, was gathered from O'Brien's southeast London flat. Police told an inquest earlier this month that they found "targeting information" collected by O'Brien last October and November, when he also began assembling the equipment in the flat.

A source said Wednesday that authorities believe the premature detonation of O'Brien's bomb and Wednesday night's failure were probably caused by use by the IRA of inexperienced "sleepers" - operatives living quietly in the area - who have no criminal record and have not been in prison.

The IRA, with the ultimate goal of getting the British rulers out of Northern Ireland and reuniting it with the Republic of Ireland to the south, has been waging war against British authorities and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland for 25 years. Protestant paramilitary organizations, determined to keep Northern Ireland British, have joined the battle with their own acts of terror. More than 3,000 people have died in the violence.

The province's political parties - most of them either Protestant or Catholic in orientation - are all preparing for the May 30 elections, designed to lead to all-party negotiations starting June 10 on the future of Northern Ireland.