Northern Ireland Police have arrested four men in connection with the shooting and serious injury of a Detective Chief Inspector, John Caldwell, in an ambush at a sports complex in Omagh on Wednesday night.
Three men, aged 38, 45 and 47, were arrested in Omagh and Coalisland in County Tyrone and were being questioned by detectives in the Musgrave Serious Crime Suite, Northern Ireland Police Chief Simon Byrne said. On thursday.
In a statement, PSNI said a 22-year-old man was arrested on Friday morning in the Coalisland area under the Terrorism Act and was also being questioned in Musgrave.
Two men fired several shots at Caldwell, who was off duty, as he was loading footballs into the trunk of his car around 8:00 pm. He was with his son, and other children he had trained that night were nearby.
Caldwell, a senior officer who has led high-level investigations into paramilitaries and other criminals, was hit four times. He is in critical but stable condition at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry.
No one claimed responsibility, but police said on Thursday that the main line of investigation had focused on dissident Republican groups, which have launched sporadic attacks on police and prison guards in recent years.
“We’re keeping an open mind,” said Assistant Chief of Police Mark McEwan. “There are several strands to this investigation. The main focus is on violent dissident Republicans, and within that there is a main focus on the New IRA as well.”
McEwan said that Caldwell tried to escape the attack. “John ran a short distance and fell to the ground, and as he was on the ground, the gunmen continued to shoot him. It shows the absolutely callous nature of this attack in a crowded space where there are children and parents nearby, and we saw many of these young people and children running in sheer terror to get to safety.”
He praised a “brave” member of the public who tried to help Caldwell while the attack was in progress. He also praised an ambulance crew. “If it weren’t for the quick action of getting John to the hospital, we could be seeing something very different this morning,” McEwan said.
Police believe the attackers fled in a small, dark car found burned out and abandoned on Racolpa Road outside Omagh. It is speculated that they may have taken another vehicle to cross the border. Irish police are helping with the investigation.
It was the most serious attack on police since a booby-trapped police officer, Ronan Kerr, was killed in 2011. Police and intelligence services have thwarted many attempted attacks since then.
The shooting drew widespread condemnation. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called it appalling and disgraceful, and Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was a “grotesque act of attempted murder”.
Northern Ireland party leaders issued a rare joint statement expressing solidarity with Caldwell and his family and asking the public to help with the police investigation.
“We speak for the overwhelming majority of people in our community who are outraged and disgusted by this reprehensible and callous assassination attempt,” he said. “There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace. Those responsible must be brought to justice.”
The statement was signed by Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin; Jeffrey Donaldson of the Democratic Unionist party; Alliance’s Naomi Long; Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party; and Colum Eastwood of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.
The market town of Omagh was the scene of the Troubles’ worst attack when a car bomb killed 29 people in 1998. The device was left by the Real IRA, a Republican splinter group opposed to the peace process.
Wednesday’s attack took place 20 miles from Strabane, where last November a New IRA improvised explosive device damaged a police car. The two police officers inside were not injured.
Christos Gaitatzis, director of Omagh High School, whose students were there, said the violence had left them numb. “I feel like the people affected here last night were my children, they were my family,” he told the BBC. “We really need to come together as a community to make sure these types of cases, which contain violence in the most heinous way I can describe, are kept away from our community.”