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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IRA Claims Responsibility For Army Barracks Bomb

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility Tuesday for the double car-bomb attack on a British army base, wounding 31 and bringing Northern Ireland back to the brink of widespread violence.

A telephone caller using a verified codeword told RTE, the Irish national broadcasters in Dublin, that the IRA committed Monday's strike inside Thiepval Barracks southwest of Belfast, heart of the 18,000-strong military presence in Northern Ireland.

It was the outlawed group's first bomb attack in the British-ruled province since mid-1994.

The government had indicated it believed the IRA was responsible.

The bombings were "certainly consistent with a terrorist organization that declared an end to a cease-fire which it had proclaimed in 1994," Northern Ireland Secretary Patrick Mayhew told reporters.

Earlier, telephone calls to news organizations in Belfast and Dublin had claimed the dissident group Continuity IRA was responsible, but the callers provided no codeword to validate the claim.

Whether Northern Ireland returns to tit-for-tat bloodshed hangs in the balance.

From Prime Minister John Major on down, politicians appealed to the province's pro-British "loyalist" paramilitary groups -- still observing a two-year-old cease-fire -- not to strike back.

Over the previous quarter-century loyalist assassins killed more than 800 Catholics, a brutal tactic they say pushed the IRA to stop its own campaign in September 1994.

The loyalist Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, which are rooted in militant Protestant areas, laid down guns the following month but some members now feel obligated to meet an eye for an eye again.

"There's still a chance we can step back from this, but in realistic terms, it's a slim chance," said David Ervine, once an Ulster Volunteer Force prisoner who leads a UVF-linked party in peace talks.

"The loyalists must not now do what their enemy wants them to do," Ervine said, reflecting the view that the IRA is trying to provoke loyalists with Monday's bombings. "Don't do it."

The Continuity group had previously claimed responsibility for a jeep bomb in July that wrecked a rural Northern Ireland hotel, and a car bomb abandoned in downtown Belfast on Sept. 28 that was defused. Loyalists declined to strike back over those attacks because the mainstream IRA was not definitely involved.

The latest strike, in which two explosives-laden vehicles were driven past guards into Northern Ireland's most heavily guarded military installation, left experts assuming it had to be the IRA.

"To get into the nerve center of the British army and leave behind not one but two massive bombs and get away with it is, by any standard, a massive breach of security. No ordinary Joe could have pulled this off," said Colonel Mike Dewar, an army veteran in Northern Ireland and an anti-terrorism expert.

Of the 21 soldiers and 10 civilian employees wounded, five soldiers and three civilians remained in Belfast hospitals Tuesday. The most seriously wounded soldier has a broken skull, burns over half his body and a mangled arm facing likely amputation.

"Our general feeling was `Here we go again'," said Dr. Laurence Rocke, one of the tired-eyed surgeons treating victims at west Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. "All we can do is sit back and wait for what happens next."

Before the IRA claimed responsibility, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said such bloodshed was "regrettable" but inevitable unless his IRA-allied party was admitted to the peace talks.

Those talks began in June among nine local parties and the British and Irish governments. They continued without progress Tuesday at Stormont, the center of British administration in east Belfast.

Sinn Fein, which represents a third of the province's Catholic minority, remains barred because the IRA resumed its campaign against the British in February with bomb attacks outside Northern Ireland.