By Symon Ross
The Associated Press
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A man used Semtex in a rocket-propelled grenade attack against Northern Ireland police officers - the first attack using the deadly explosive since paramilitary groups agreed to hand in their weapons, police said Tuesday.
Dissident groups have attacked police seven times since November, but they have never used Semtex, Northern Ireland police Deputy Chief Constable Paul Leighton said. One officer sustained minor injuries in Saturday's attack, although the grenade failed to explode.
"I'm worried," Leighton told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "I was speaking to the officers (Monday) and I know that they feel very vulnerable ... I know that they feel really quite sad that people don't see them yet as human beings."
The Semtex - a plastic explosive used by the Irish Republican Army during its violent campaign against British rule - is thought to have been part of a weapons cache that was decommissioned by the IRA as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
The attack renewed concerns that some of the weapons were never destroyed and may still be in the hands of extremist groups.
"The device was an old type of device that had been used previously in the IRA campaign, and we believe at this point in time it had probably been stored since then and malfunctioned possibly because it hadn't been stored in very good conditions," Leighton said.
Northern Ireland police, whose force has been predominantly Protestant, have long been targets of militant groups.
The attack - which occurred on a routine patrol in Lisnaskea, about 80 miles southwest of Belfast - underscored the determination of some die-hard paramilitaries to continue the fight for unification with Ireland.
The IRA killed nearly 300 police officers and wounded thousands more during its failed 1970-1997 campaign to pry Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. Splinter militant groups also killed scores.
But the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, distanced itself from the attacker and said the small groups have little support.
Police say support for the groups is small with only an estimated 80 or so active members of paramilitary groups.
Most IRA members support a peace process to boost Catholic support for the police. The police have also actively recruited Catholics in recent years.
The Good Friday agreement called for police reform, a power-sharing agreement that took effect recently and the decommissioning of IRA weapons.
The IRA's disarmament was supervised by a commission led by John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general, but the group refused to allow de Chastelain to document in public how many weapons had been decommissioned, or what his officials had actually done to them.
De Chastelain insisted three years ago that the volume and scope of weaponry surrendered matched estimates provided by intelligence agencies.
British and Irish agencies had estimated that the IRA received three tons of Semtex from Libya. The plastic explosive is made in the Czech Republic and popular because it is difficult to detect.
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"If there's one bit of Semtex there is an indication there's more out there, and that's very worrying," said Tom Eliot, an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.