N. Ireland Police Hunt For Killers Of 2 British Soldiers

Leaders of Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government are pledging to continue ongoing peace efforts. That comes after gunmen fatally shot two off-duty British soldiers over the weekend. It's the first deadly attack on Northern Ireland security forces in 12 years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is away. A shudder ran through Northern Ireland over the weekend because two British soldiers were shot dead. They were the first troops killed there in a dozen years, and a splinter group that calls itself The Real IRA is claiming responsibility. The Real IRA broke away from the Irish Republican Army, which has pledged to work for peace. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: Gunmen pulled up and opened fire on soldiers of the British Royal Engineers in the city of Antrim 15 miles northwest of Belfast. The soldiers had come out of their barracks to accept delivery of take-out pizza. The two soldiers who were killed were in their 20s and due to fly out within days for duty in Afghanistan.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is one of Northern Ireland's new leaders who's put down his weapons, and he vowed the killings in Antrim would not plunge the province into a new cycle of violence.

Mr. MARTIN MCGUINNESS (Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland): I supported the IRA during the conflict. I myself was a member of the IRA. But that war is over, and now the people responsible for last night's incident are clearly signaling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that. I will stand with all democrats against their attempts to plunge us back into conflict.

GIFFORD: McGuinness said The Real IRA was trying to provoke a new war by bringing British troops back onto the streets of Northern Ireland, where they've not patrolled since 2007. More than 4,000 troops are still based in the province but mainly training for overseas deployments such as Afghanistan.

Just how far Northern Ireland has come in the last decade was shown by Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, whose words echoed those of his former foe, Martin McGuinness.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Leader, Democratic Unionist Party): We will not allow these people to set our agenda. We will not allow them to drag us back to the bad old days. We have had a reminder of what it used to be like in Northern Ireland, and I hope that there will be a united determination that will say we are not going back.

GIFFORD: Robinson and McGuinness were due to travel together to the United States this week to drum up U.S. investment in Northern Ireland. They've postponed their trip, but they say they still expect to visit President Barack Obama in the White House on St. Patrick's Day, March 17th. President Obama condemned the attack. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the killers would be brought to justice, as a massive manhunt continued in Northern Ireland to find the gunmen.

Yesterday, Catholic and Protestant Christians walked from their churches at 12:00 noon to the scene of the killings to pray in unity.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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