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1991: IRA men shot dead by British army

Three IRA gunmen have been shot dead by the army in Northern Ireland.

Soldiers opened fire on their car as it drove through the village of Coagh in County Tyrone.

It was hit by a hail of about 200 bullets, before crashing and bursting into flames.

The attack is believed to have been carried out by a specialist covert team acting on intelligence.

Police said the men were on their way to mount an ambush on Protestant workmen.

The men shot were Peter Ryan - who had been on the run for 10 years after escaping from prison in Belfast - Lawrence McNally and Anthony Dorris.

The IRA has admitted that the men belonged to its organisation and were in "active service".

After the shooting, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke insisted that talks to find a political settlement in Ulster would not be thrown off course.

The MP for the area welcomed the army's "effective operation".

Democratic Unionist Rev William McCrea said: "Innocent life has been spared and I think we have got to be thankful for that.

"No-one gloats over the fact of death but I would rather have dead terrorists than dead innocent people in this community."

But the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Seamus Mallon MP, expressed the concerns of some in the nationalist community.

He said: "We should always be vigilant that those who are charged with enforcing the law do it within the law and...in a way which will allow people to answer for their crimes, if there are crimes, in a proper court of law".

In Context
The three gunmen died close to the spot where three Protestants were murdered by the IRA two years earlier.

Army regulations allow soldiers to open fire without warning if by not doing so they would increase the risk of death or injury to themselves or anyone else.

The case contained echoes of a previous ambush in Gibraltar in March 1988, when three unarmed members of the IRA were shot and killed by members of British special forces.

The government later failed to prevent the transmission of a controversial TV documentary which cast doubt on the legality of the Gibraltar killings.

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