Three men were arrested today over the attempted murder of a senior Northern Ireland detective who was shot up to four times by two suspected New IRA gunmen last night in front of his young son.
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was putting footballs in the back of his car after coaching children 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 tried to run but fell to the ground, where the pair continued to fire at him as screaming children ran to safety.
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 is a high profile officer who has led a number of major investigations, including taking a leading role in the murder probe following the killing of Natalie McNally in Lurgan in December.
He was taken to hospital in Londonderry where he is in a critical but stable condition.
Today, PSNI confirmed three men aged 38, 45, 47 had been arrested in Omagh and Coalisland in connection with Mr Caldwell’s shooting. Police in the Republic of Ireland assisting with the hunt for the gunmen amid suspicions they may have fled across the border.
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell has led numerous high profile investigations in Northern Ireland
A forensic officer behind a cordon this morning at the Youth Sport Omagh in Co Tyrone
A major attempted murder investigation is now underway involving officers from the PSNI and
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told BBC Radio Ulster: ‘Last night at approximately 8 o’clock at the youth sports centre in Killyclogher Road, Omagh, whilst John was putting footballs into the boot of his car, and accompanied by his young son, two gunmen approached and we believe both have fired multiple shots.
‘John has ran a short distance and he’s fallen to the ground, and as he’s on the ground the gunmen have continued to fire at him.
‘That shows the absolute callous nature of this attack in a crowded space where there are children and parents in the vicinity, and we saw many of those young people and children running in sheer terror to get to safety.
‘At least two other vehicles have been struck, and again this highlights the callous and reckless nature of this attack.’
Mr McEwan said the investigation is at an early stage and that police believe the gunmen made off in a small dark car which was later found burned out just outside Omagh.
‘I would appeal for anyone with any information about those involved, about the vehicle, or anything else you think may be of use to the inquiry, no matter how small, please come forward to police,’ he said.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said ‘violent dissident republicans’ were now the ‘primary focus’ of the investigation’.
‘We are keeping an open mind. There are multiple strands to that investigation. The primary focus is on violent dissident republicans and within that there is a primary focus as well on New IRA,’ Mr McEwan said.
Asked if he thinks dissident republicans are probably responsible, he said: ‘Yes, as I say, we are keeping an open mind as we do in every investigation, but that is a primary line of inquiry for this attack.’
The office said there remained a risk of further attacks, with the threat level classed as ‘substantial’.
‘We are supporting our officers and staff. We continually review our security arrangements and advise our officers on security arrangements and that’s on an ongoing basis,’ he said.
‘The threat level at the moment sits at substantial and that means an attack is highly likely.
‘That is an ongoing piece of work in terms of supporting our officers and staff and looking at security arrangements.’
Mr McEwan paid tribute to a ‘brave’ member of the public who ran Mr Caldwell during the attack and administered first aid.
‘I would also like to thank our partners in the ambulance service. If it hadn’t been for their quick action in getting John to hospital we might have been looking at something very different this morning,’ he said.
‘But as I say, John is still in a critical condition.’
He said police recognise the ‘huge shock and trauma’ the attack has caused in the community in Omagh, adding that he wanted to thank them for their continued patience and support.
Mr McEwan said: ‘First and foremost, can I say as a police officer, it is shocking, horrific and a certain amount of anger that this is happening to one of our colleagues and friends.
‘We are supporting our officers and staff. And as a member of the community it is again shocking, and I welcome the condemnation that we’ve seen across the community.’
Mr Caldwell was taken to hospital in Londonderry where he is in a critical but stable condition, while a huge search is now underway to find the gunmen
The detective had worked on some of Northern Ireland’s most high profile murder cases
The attack took place at the Youth Sport Omagh sports centre at around 8pm last night
An attempted murder investigation has been launched by Northern Irish police
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was appalled by the ‘disgraceful shooting of an off-duty police officer in Omagh’.
The New IRA was previously blamed for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in 2019.
Last November, the group was 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, including 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.
The shooting of Mr Caldwell has been condemned by politicians across the UK and Ireland.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar condemned the ‘grotesque act of attempted murder’.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the shooting was ‘diabolical and unacceptable’, and added there is no excuse or political rationale for it.
She told RTE: ‘There can be no hiding place for this. There can be no sympathy for this.
‘There is no rhyme or reason politically speaking for a vicious act of thuggery like this.
‘Now what we need is an all-Ireland effort co-operation between An Garda Siochana and the PSNI to find the motive for this act, and more importantly to apprehend the perpetrators and anybody with any evidence or any information must not hesitate in bringing that forward immediately to the appropriate authorities.’
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have issued a joint statement condemning the shooting of a senior police officer in Omagh.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Alliance leader Naomi Long, UUP leader Doug Beattie and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said they stand united in outright condemnation of the attack.
‘We speak for the overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder,’ they said.
‘The community of Omagh has endured profound suffering, loss, and pain in the past which has left a deep trauma, and so this act of violence has left people there rightly angered.
‘There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace. Those responsible must be brought to justice.
‘This will require the full co-operation of the public whom we call upon to assist police in this attempted murder investigation.
‘Together we stand with John’s family and his colleagues in the police service at this time.’
Former Irish premier Bertie Ahern also spoke of his shock at hearing of the ‘callous and horrendous attempted murder’.
“Thankfully events we don’t see happening too much but it’s a throwback to the past and there are still evil people intent on causing trouble,’ the former taoiseach told at an event in Dublin.
“(They) went out last night to a sports venue and tried to kill a decent guy who was off duty trying to give his time to kids, to help them with their sporting activities and sporting endeavours and a good community man.
“We wish him well and a safe recovery, hopefully.”
The principal of Omagh High School, whose students were at the scene where an off-duty police officer was shot, has said that violence must be ‘pushed away from our community’.
‘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,’ Christos Gaitatzis told BBC Radio Ulster.
‘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.’
A large police response followed the attack, which has left the officer in a critical but stable condition
A forensics officer at the scene of a shooting in the Killyclogher Road area of Omagh