Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 17:18 UK

Police patrol felt 'vulnerable'

Meigh

By Conor McAuley
BBC Newsline reporter

It was dusk as the lead police car approached the crossroads at the centre of Meigh village close to the border in south Armagh.

It was one of four PSNI vehicles in the vicinity, on routine calls in the area on Friday evening.

In the fading light, the constable driving saw three men standing in the middle of the road.

He was 100 yards from the crossroads when it became clear that the men were masked and carrying rifles. The officer stopped.

The dissident republicans mounting the illegal checkpoint may not have realised that the unmarked car was a police vehicle.

The BBC subsequently established that there had been at least seven terrorists, maybe more.

Six were carrying machine guns, the other is said to have had a rocket launcher and they were handing out leaflets warning people against co-operating with the security forces on either side of the border.

As one of the gunmen waved for the police to come on, the officer radioed his colleagues what he had seen, turned and drove out of the area.

There was a lack of intelligence support, a lack of training. We should have known and been looked after more, but I felt isolated
PSNI officer

The four police cars met up a short distance away and returned to their base in Newry.

In the intervening few days there has been much public debate about whether the patrol did the right thing by withdrawing.

Some have suggested that the police should have moved in and arrested the gang.

Others have concluded that that would have led to a gunfight in the middle of the village with potentially disastrous consequences for civilians and police alike.

There had been eight officers in total on the patrol, two women and six men, both full time and reserve, two to each car.

I met one of them on Tuesday after they agreed to give the BBC an account of their experience in south Armagh last Friday night.

'Vulnerable'

The person I spoke to is a police officer with experience of pre and post ceasefire policing.

The patrol was on routine calls and had no advance warning that they might run into a dissident IRA checkpoint.

The officer I spoke to said he feels let down.

"I've never felt as vulnerable. After many years service in some sticky areas, I've never felt as vulnerable and so bereft of support," he said.

"There was a lack of intelligence support, a lack of training. We should have known and been looked after more, but I felt isolated."

When the officer refers to lack of training, they are talking about anti-ambush training, and training in the use of rifles.

There were rifles in the police cars, but not all officers would have had up to date training in how to use them.

That is because, it has been claimed, Full Time Reserve Officers are not getting all the refresher training they need because ultimately the reserve is being phased out.

We were expected to replace maybe up to a thousand soldiers in places like south Armagh at the turn of a page
PSNI officer

The qualification to use a rifle is time limited, and in the case of at least some of the officers on Friday night that time would have expired.

If it had come to it, some of the police would have had to rely on their handguns in a fire fight with men carrying automatic rifles and a rocket propelled grenade launcher.

The odds would have been heavily weighted in favour of the dissidents.

There has been much speculation about why the officers who spotted the gunmen in Meigh did not wait for reinforcements before confronting them.

The officer I spoke to said that is because the eight officers on patrol that night was virtually the full compliment of police available in the whole of south Armagh on Friday night.

There is a marked police car operating in Newry, but it mostly deals with calls in the city itself.

There is also an armed response unit, the Special Operations Branch, which would be fully trained in anti-terrorist techniques, but its nearest base is some distance away, so unless they had already been in the area, it would have taken some time for them to reach the border, had the incident escalated into a gunfight.

"We were expected to replace maybe up to a thousand soldiers in places like south Armagh at the turn of a page," the officer said.

"I'm not saying we should have the Army back. But I believe the dissidents are more and more confident and capable of mounting these operations in border areas.

"We get briefings that they have a heavy machine gun, Semtex and other weaponry. They're building themselves up and we're being scaled back."



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