A fourth man has been arrested over the attempted murder of top Northern Ireland detective John Caldwell, who was hit multiple times at a sports club in Omagh on Wednesday as he reportedly tried to save young children from the gunmen.
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was putting footballs in the back of his car after coaching an under-15s team at Youth Sport Omagh in Co Tyrone when he was ambushed by the two masked men at around 8pm.
After they fired multiple shots, the father ran a short distance before falling to the ground, where the pair continued to fire at him as screaming children ran to safety.
He was taken to hospital in Londonderry where police say he remains in a critical but stable condition.
The suspected terrorists, who police believe are from the New IRA dissident republican group responsible for murdering the journalist Lyra McKee, 29, fled in a car that was later found burnt out.
Mr Caldwell was taken to hospital in Londonderry where he is in a critical but stable condition
Armed police pictured at the scene of the shooting as they guard a wide police cordon
In a statement, PSNI said a 22-year-old man was arrested early on Friday morning in the Coalisland area.
The force said the arrest was made under the Terrorism Act and the man is currently being questioned by detectives in Musgrave serious crime suite.
It comes after PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne told a press conference in Belfast on Thursday that three men had been arrested in connection with the attempted murder of Mr Caldwell.
He said: ‘This morning we have arrested three men aged 38, 45 and 47 in Omagh and Coalisland in connection with John’s attempted murder.
‘They’re currently being questioned by detectives at Musgrave serious crime suite.’ The dissident republican group the New IRA are the ‘primary focus’ of the PSNI’s attempted murder probe.
The attack has been condemned by political leaders across the UK and Ireland.
Mr Caldwell was coaching a youth sports team at the facility on Wednesday evening.
Mr Byrne said: ‘Clearly as an organisation, we are utterly shocked and angered by last night’s brazen and calculated attack.
‘John is a father, husband and colleague, and a valued and active member of his local community.’
He said Mr Caldwell has been a valued police officer for 26 years ‘committed to public service as a senior investigating officer supporting victims and their families in bringing offenders to justice’.
He added: ‘John is held in the highest esteem within our organisation. He is a credit to his family and to the police service.
‘And of course our thoughts are with John and his family as he fights for his life in hospital today.’
Mr Byrne added: ‘This has sent a huge shockwave across the organisation.
‘We’ve been speaking principally with the Police Federation but also with those representatives of senior officers and police staff who would see themselves under threat.
A forensic officer behind a cordon on Thursday at the Youth Sport Omagh in Co Tyrone
Forensic officers at the scene near the sports complex in the Killyclogher Road area of Omagh, Co Tyrone
‘Clearly, one of the things that defines us is our resilience and our commitment to keep going in dark times and tough times.
‘So John knows that his colleagues will now be working tirelessly around the clock to support his recovery but also to bring the offenders that have tried to kill him to swift justice.’
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said there were ‘many other young people, children’ waiting to be picked up by their parents when the attack on Mr Caldwell took place.
‘And those children ran for cover in sheer terror towards the centre,’ he told reporters.
He said: ‘The two gunmen, who were dressed in dark clothing, carried out this cowardly attack and left the scene on foot.
‘At least two other vehicles were struck by their volley of shots.
‘We believe the gunmen fled the scene in a small, dark-coloured vehicle shortly after 8pm. We believe this vehicle was abandoned and set on fire in Racolpa Road, Omagh.
‘We want to hear from anyone who was in the area or who witnessed what happened to get in touch with any information that could help with our investigation.’
According to the BBC, Liam Kelly, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, described Mr Caldwell’s injuries as ‘life-changing’.
Irish police are working closely in co-operation with their counterparts in the PSNI and have intensified patrols.
Mr Caldwell is the first police officer to be shot in a gun attack in Northern Ireland since 2017, when a uniformed officer was injured after being shot at by dissident republicans with an AK-47.
The incident comes at a time of heightened tension in the province following controversy over the Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Opposition to the protocol by the Democratic Unionist Party has prompted its members to boycott Stormont. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is currently seeking to renegotiate the deal in a bid to end the impasse.
It also comes two months before commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal which helped bring an end to the Troubles.
The attack has been condemned by political leaders across the UK and Ireland.
Christos Gaitatzis, the principal of Omagh High School whose students were at the scene of the shooting, told BBC Radio Ulster: ‘I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the youngsters this morning, waking up in the aftershock of what they experienced last night.
‘I feel that those people affected here last night were my children, were my family.
‘We really need to get together as a community in order to make sure that these types of instances, that contain violence in the most heinous way I can describe, have to be pushed away from our community.
‘(We have to) make sure that those individuals are caught and isolated out of our community to make sure that Omagh remains the town that it always has been – a town that is together, is coming together at all times, especially during difficult circumstances like this.’
The New IRA has been blamed for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in 2019. Last November, the group was also thought to be behind the attempted murder of two police officers in a bomb attack in Strabane, Co Tyrone.
Omagh has seen significant dissident violence in the past, including a Real IRA bomb attack in 1998 which killed 29 people – one of whom was a woman pregnant with twins.
It was also where Constable Ronan Kerr was murdered in April 2011. The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years last March.
This is a breaking news story and is being updated.
What is the New IRA? How they became Northern Ireland’s biggest terror threat
The New IRA – the primary focus of detectives investigating the attack on a senior police officer in Omagh – is believed to be the largest of the dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland.
It has been linked to a number of murders including those of journalist and author Lyra McKee in 2019, Pc Ronan Kerr in 2011, and prison officers David Black in 2012 and Adrian Ismay in 2016.
The New IRA is believed to have been formed between 2011 and 2012 following the merger of a number of smaller groups, including the Real IRA – the group behind the 1998 Omagh bomb.
The group is strongest in Londonderry and Strabane, with a presence in Belfast, and other pockets in Co Tyrone, and Lurgan in Co Armagh. In August 2020, the alleged leadership of the New IRA suffered a major blow with a series of arrests prompted by an MI5 surveillance operation.
Less than a year before, in September 2019, a bomb in an ‘advanced state of readiness’ was found in the Creggan area of Derry. Police said the device, attributed to the New IRA, was designed to kill police officers.
In June 2019, the group claimed responsibility for the failed murder bid of a police officer after an unexploded bomb was found under the officer’s car parked at Shandon Park Golf Club in Belfast. In April that year, the New IRA claimed responsibility for shooting dead Ms McKee who was observing rioting in the Creggan area.
A few months after the murder of Ms McKee, Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray, the officer in charge of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s anti-terror response, said the New IRA derived ‘sick and sad’ pleasure in the reaction to the shooting, motivating them to intensify their activities in the region.
Ms Gray expressed regret that the public outcry following the murder of the 29-year-old did not act as a watershed moment for the dissidents to reconsider their adherence to violence. She claimed the reverse has been true, saying the killing in Derry’s Creggan area was a factor in a spike in dissident murder bids in the region.
A month before the murder of Ms McKee, the New IRA claimed responsibility for sending small explosive devices in the post to two airports and a train station in London and to the University of Glasgow. In January 2019, police blamed the New IRA after a bomb placed in a van exploded outside the courthouse in Derry.
Meanwhile, in 2020 a senior republican said New IRA threats against Sinn Fein were ‘stupid’ and ‘dangerous’. At the time, all party members were warned of a dissident plot to launch an under-car bomb attack. Gerry Kelly said it would not deter elected representatives but would worry members of their families.
Michelle O’Neill, then Stormont’s Deputy First Minister, said officers had warned that dissident republicans were planning to attack her and Mr Kelly. It came in response to the pair’s attendance at a Police Service of Northern Ireland recruitment event.
Dissident republican terrorist activity has been at a lower level in Northern Ireland in recent years and security services have secured a number of successes disrupting the activities of terror groups. Last March, the level of terrorism threat from dissident republicans was lowered from severe to substantial for the first time in 12 years.
The decision to change the threat level was announced by the then-Secretary of State Brandon Lewis but made independently by the security service MI5. The level is subject to continuous review and judgments are based on a wide range of information.
This was the first time the threat level in Northern Ireland was reduced from severe since it was first published in 2010. Substantial means a terror attack is likely and could occur without warning.