Police in Northern Ireland are hunting two gunmen who shot and seriously wounded a detective chief inspector, John Caldwell, in an ambush at a sports complex in Omagh on Wednesday night.
The attackers shot the off-duty officer multiple times as he was putting footballs into the boot of his car at about 8pm. He was with his young son, and other children he had been coaching that evening were nearby.
Caldwell, a senior officer who has led high-profile investigations into paramilitaries and other criminals, is understood to have been hit four times. He is in a critical but stable condition at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry.
No one has claimed responsibility but police said on Thursday that the primary line of inquiry focused on dissident republican groups, which have launched sporadic attacks on police and prison officers in recent years.
“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,” the assistant chief constable, Mark McEwan, said.
McEwan said Caldwell attempted to escape from the attack. “John has run 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.”
He praised a member of the public who tried to help Caldwell while the attack was under way. He also lauded an ambulance crew. “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,” McEwan said.
Police believe the gunmen fled in a small, dark car found burned and abandoned on Racolpa Road, outside Omagh. There is speculation that they may have taken another vehicle and crossed the border. Irish police are helping with the investigation.
It was the most serious attack on police since a booby trap bomb killed a constable, Ronan Kerr, in 2011. Police and intelligence services have thwarted many attempted attacks since then.
The shooting prompted widespread condemnation. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, called it appalling and disgraceful. Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said it was a “grotesque act of attempted murder”.
Northern Ireland’s party leaders issued a rare joint statement expressing solidarity with Caldwell and his family and calling on the public to help the police investigation.
“We speak for the overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder,” it said. “There is absolutely no tolerance for such attacks by the enemies of our peace. Those responsible must be brought to justice.”
The statement was signed by Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin; Jeffrey Donaldson, of the Democratic Unionist party; Naomi Long, of Alliance; Doug Beattie, of the Ulster Unionist party; and Colum Eastwood, of the Social Democratic and Labour party.
The market town of Omagh was the scene of the worst attack of the Troubles when a car bomb killed 29 people in 1998. The device had been left by the Real IRA, a dissident republican group opposed to the peace process.
Wednesday’s attack occurred 20 miles from Strabane, where last November a New IRA improvised explosive device damaged a police patrol car. The two officers inside escaped unhurt.
Christos Gaitatzis, the principal of Omagh high school, some of whose students were at the scene, said the violence left them numb. “I feel that those people affected here last night were my children, were my family,” he told the BBC. “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.”