No available evidence that terrorist attack on soldier could have been prevented

Published Date: 12.12.2006

The Police Ombudsman's Office has said it has found no evidence that the murder of Stephen Restorick, the last serving soldier to be killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland, could have been prevented. However, it has concluded that the car used in the attack was one of a number of vehicles under surveillance in the area at the time and that police should have directed closer and more precise surveillance of it.

Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was shot by a sniper on February 12,1997 as he manned a vehicle checkpoint at Bessbrook in South Armagh. In March 1999 a man was found guilty of the murder. Mr Restorick's parents made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman after they read an article in a Sunday newspaper which quoted as its source a former soldier who had worked "under cover" in Northern Ireland and who was writing a book about his work.

The article said he claimed Stephen Restorick's murder could have been prevented. The soldier alleged that both the gun and the car used by the terrorists had been "bugged" by the military, but said that police allowed the terrorist attack to go ahead. The article suggested that police might have wanted to protect an informant.

Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed the former "undercover" soldier, one of the journalists who wrote the article, the senior police man who investigated the murder and soldiers on duty with Lance Bombardier Restorick. They also spoke to senior military and police personnel in the area at the time and to those working on covert operations.

The Police Ombudsman investigators were given access to sensitive and secret intelligence documents held by Special Branch and the Army. They also searched a number of police premises for relevant documentation.

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, said she is concerned about the level of information and original documentation which had been destroyed including "decision" logs, policy files and documentation about a surveillance operation which was underway in the area at the time. She said there was no "audit trail" as to who made the decisions to destroy this material and why.

Mrs O'Loan said her investigators have not uncovered any evidence to suggest that Stephen Restorick's murder could have been prevented: "The man who made these allegations was a former member of the Special Forces but he was not present on the day of the attack nor was he part of a surveillance team operating in the area at the time. While we have uncovered evidence that the stolen Mazda car used in the attack was under surveillance, we have found no evidence that a listening device had been planted onboard nor that anyone knew about the specific plans for the car that day.We also examined the issue of whether the gun used in the attack had been fitted with a tracking device as alleged by the undercover officer. I am satisfied, given the level of evidence obtained during the enquiry, that this was not the case," she said.

Attack vehicle was under surveillance, but no information linking it to a specific sniper attack.

Investigators interviewed three Special Forces soldiers who were involved in military undercover work in the area at the time. They confirmed that the car used in the sniper attack had been one of a number of vehicles and premises under surveillance as part of an ongoing covert operation, but said there had been no intelligence linking the vehicle to a specific sniper attack.

The soldier, who on the day of the attack had been in charge of the operation to monitor the car, said that for a variety of reasons, they had not been able to identify its precise location. He said that requests to establish a more exact location of the car were refused by police for fear of compromising the overall operation. The police provided Police Ombudsman investigators with an unsigned Special Branch intelligence assessment from that period which suggested that the Mazda car might be used in a terrorist attack which was in the final stages of planning. However, this material did not contain specific information about the nature, time or location of the attack or its intended attack.

The then Head of Special Branch in the area was interviewed. He confirmed that the Mazda car had been under surveillance but said it was only one of several vehicles police were watching. He said his team had no knowledge who was on board and what their intentions were. He denied refusing a military request to conduct a closer inspection of the vehicle on the day of the attack.

Mrs O'Loan said she is concerned that police did have an intelligence assessment that the Mazda car was to be used in an attack and did not do more with this information. She said that in the absence of a decision log" it is not possible to attribute those decisions to any officers.

She stressed, however, that there is no evidence available that police knew of the impending sniper attack: "We have established that there had been a surveillance operation in the area for some considerable time and that a number of other properties and vehicles were also involved, including the car which was eventually used in the attack. It is very regrettable that police did not pay closer attention to this particular car, given that they had concerns about it. However we have not uncovered any evidence they had information which would have allowed them to prevent Stephen's murder," said Mrs O'Loan.

The Police Ombudsman's Office is also investigating a separate complaint, part of which deals with the use of the same weapon in the attempted murder of a Police Officer in South Armagh, following the murder of Mr Restorick.

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