Northern Ireland news

Dissident republicans may have fired shots at private helicopter mistaking it for PSNI aircraft

A Garda checkpoint on the Monaghan/Fermanagh border. Picture by Ronan McGrade/Pacemaker Press

DISSIDENT republicans may have fired shots at a private helicopter on Co Fermanagh after mistaking it for a PSNI aircraft.

The Continuity IRA claimed it had fired a high powered Dragunov sniper rifle - a weapon favoured by the Russian military - at the PSNI helicopter in Wattlebridge, close to the Co Cavan border last Thursday.

The surrounding area was closed yesterday as PSNI worked with An Garda Síochána to carry out searches almost a week after police received a report on Wednesday January 13 that "persons purporting to represent the Continuity IRA" had left a suspicious device on Wattlebridge Road in the Newtownbutler area.

The follow-up claim to The Irish News that shots had been fired at the police helicopter came on Thursday January 14.

Police denied its helicopter had been flying in the area or was attacked at that time and yesterday a senior officer said they had now tracked down a private craft which was in the air space at that time.

The pilot was uninjured and "unaware" of the alleged attack when contacted by officers.

South Area Commander, Chief Superintendent Andy Freeburn said there could have been "catastrophic effects" if the aircraft had crashed into nearby homes, as he confirmed "the police service helicopter was not deployed in the Wattlebridge area at any time on Thursday, 14th January".

"A fixed wing aircraft was deployed to conduct searches on this date," Mr Freeburn said.

"Following extensive enquiries we have established that a private helicopter was travelling through the area on Thursday.

"If there is any truth to the claims from dissident republicans, we believe that this civilian helicopter is the aircraft that they shot at.

"Fortunately the helicopter did not sustain any damage and its occupant was unaware of any shots being fired."

Mr Freeburn said the "violent dissident republicans" have "shown their absolute disregard for the lives of ordinary people".

"The fact that this alleged attack was intended for police, makes it no less heinous.

"Police officers safeguard our communities every day in the face of this threat and continue to do their utmost to build a safer society."

He appealed for people to stand with the PSNI and "work in partnership" to find those responsible for the latest in a string of attacks on officers.

"The Continuity IRA have sought to disrupt our communities a number of times over the last few years with a booby trap device in Craigavon in July 2019, an explosive device on the Cavan Road in August 2019 and an explosive device on a heavy goods vehicle in Lurgan in January 2020.

"They did not care about the danger they caused to our communities then, nor do they care now.

"All right thinking people will appreciate the catastrophic affects that a crashed aircraft would have had on the helicopter pilot and residents living in this area. Their recklessness knows no bounds."

Mr Freeburn asked anyone with information "no matter how insignificant it may seem" to contact officers "immediately" on 101.

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