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Religiously Mixed Omagh Shattered

August 17, 1998

OMAGH, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Police arrested five suspects at dawn today in connection with the car bomb that killed 28 people and shattered hundreds of lives as it ripped through this religiously mixed town in Northern Ireland.

The suspects were found in their homes near Omagh, said an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The officer cautioned that charges against the suspects were not imminent. Under Northern Ireland’s anti-terrorist law, they could be questioned for up to a week before being charged or released.

Also today, a bomb threat at Stormont, the center of British administration for Northern Ireland in east Belfast, caused the evacuation of staff. No injuries were reported and no bomb was found.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, emerged Sunday from an hour-long meeting in Belfast, 70 miles east of Omagh, vowing to work together to hunt down the bombers _ believed to belong to a renegade Irish Republican Army offshoot opposed to April’s peace agreement.

``The purpose of that bombing was to destroy the work, destroy the hope and the agreement we built up,″ Blair said. ``Our determination has got to be that these people will never win, and that democracy will triumph over evil.″

Each of the 2,000 residents of Omagh seemed to have a story to tell about Saturday’s bombing, offered in flat tones of disbelief: a school chum who won’t be in class next month; a father and son who no longer will enliven a neighborhood; a shopkeeper who never again will greet customers with a ready smile.

``I don’t understand why I’m living,″ said Jim Sharkey, who was knocked off his feet at his newsstand on bustling Market Street when the 500-pound car bomb exploded in the worst terrorist strike in Northern Ireland’s history.

``How does this town deal with this?″ asked the Rev. Michael Keaveny of Omagh’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, outside the makeshift headquarters where the dead, wounded and missing are being tracked.

Three generations of one family are gone: Avril Monaghan, 30, her 18-month-old daughter Maura and her mother Mary Grimes, 65, who had been visiting from nearby towns to shop on Market Street. Mrs. Monaghan was pregnant with twins.

A 12-year-old boy from Madrid who was visiting Ireland to learn English died, as did his female teacher twice his age. The two Spaniards had decided at the last minute to put off visiting a historic park to do some shopping.

Also killed was 39-year-old Philomena Skelton, who had been seeking a school uniform for her youngest daughter. Kevin Skelton was overcome with disbelief when he went to the morgue to formally identify his wife of 20 years.

She ``hadn’t a mark on her face,″ he said.

Ronnie Flanagan, the head of Northern Ireland’s police force, planned to team up today with his Irish counterpart, Pat Bryne, to assess security across the island.

Their recommendations will be forwarded to Blair and Ahern, who has refused to rule out the reintroduction of one of the most draconian responses available to his government under emergency powers: detention of terrorist suspects without trial.

Blair’s spokesman would not discuss whether the measure might be brought back to Northern Ireland.

Exacerbating the carnage _ and the outrage _ was the misleading phone warning that caused police to unwittingly herd a large crowd, some attracted by a town festival, toward the full brunt of the blast.

Mary McAleese, the first Northern Ireland native to be elected president of the Irish Republic, traveled to Omagh on Sunday to condemn the bombers as ``a posse of serial killers″ who planted their device amid ``a scene of simple, humble innocence.″

Market Street remained sealed off, yet with signs that something terrible had taken place: a mangled baby carriage parked amid the rubble of a collapsing storefront, half-eaten meals abandoned on the tables of a cafe, diapers scattered pell-mell in the road.

Mairead Thompson brought her eight children from nearby Londonderry to view the devastation, to show what hate can do.

She said she hopes for the best, but fears Omagh _ a religiously mixed town that saw relatively little trouble before _ is forever marked.

``You can sense it already today, the change,″ she said, sweeping her arm around to underscore the unnatural quiet of the streets. ``The silence.″

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