Defence Correspondent IAN BRUCE, who spent last week in Northern Ireland's border bandit country with photographer STUART PATERSON, reports on the new, harder breed of terrorist whose potency should not be underestimated.
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THE Army in Ulster had long been expecting the kind of ''Christmas present'' delivered by the IRA on the Fermanagh border on Wednesday night. A suspected terrorist leader stopped at a routine vehicle checkpoint in neighbouring Tyrone two weeks ago had even told a British major: ''Your gift's overdue, but it'll be coming soon.''
Since then, security at all bases had been tightened as the troops braced themselves for a terrorist atrocity which they could do little to prevent. At Cookstown, soldiers were ordered to carry their helmets at all times within their own camp because of the danger of mortar attack.
The 1st battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers, victims of the midweek assault, have responsibility for about 120 miles of border, plus more than 1000 square kilometers of rural badlands. To cope with that huge and largely hostile area, the unit has between 500 and 600 men, plus support from the part-time troops of the Ulster Defence Regiment.
The attack on the permanent vehicle checkpoint at Derryard, a mini-base manned by about eight soldiers and an RUC constable and consisting of a small accommodation unit and a couple of defensive sangars, was probably planned over a period of several months and was carried out with skill and courage.
Contrary to early reports of the action, the IRA managed to crash a lorry right through the gates of the camp. Up to 12 terrorists then entered the base, spraying it with automatic gunfire from inside and lobbing grenades, petrol and nail bombs. A fierce battle then broke out with the defenders sealed inside the sangars firing through their weapon slits into their own compound.
Luckily for the garrison, a KOSB foot patrol to the north heard the gunfire and moved in to their aid. This patrol fired more than 100 rounds as the IRA broke off their attack at this unexpected intervention and fled two miles back to escape over the Eire border.
Security sources revealed yesterday that the assault group used heavy machine guns and RPG 7 rocket launchers during their attack, as well as home-made grenades and bombs. A senior military officer said: ''They are murdering bastards, but they are not cowards. This team actually pressed home a ground attack right into the heart of the compound. That takes guts when there are people firing back.''
First indications are that the Provisionals from South Monaghan were probably responsible, aided and abetted by activists from the Clogher Valley to the north. And despite the prolonged exchange of heavy fire, the Army is claiming no hits. Shooting fleeting targets in a confused battle in the dark is not as easy as it looks in the movies.
As a senior officer said yesterday: ''We may have winged a couple, but we just don't know. They certainly pulled out with a lot of fire whizzing round their ears. We may never know for sure if they took casualties. It's one of those examples of the law of natural malice. If it had been a couple of teenage tearaways jumping a roadblock in a stolen car, we would undoubtedly have shot them both dead with the first burst.''
The opposition in the border and rural areas is recognised by the Army as a potent and professional enemy. They seldom mount spur-of-the-moment attacks, relying on detailed reconnaissance, meticulous planning, and maximum firepower to strike at police or Army patrols and bases.
In Fermanagh, raids are usually carried out by PIRA active service units based south of the border, although there is a powerful cell of ''activists'' -- the security forces now frown on them being called ''known players'' -- around Clogher. And for every terrorist trained to use a gun or assemble a bomb, there are perhaps three supporters prepared to act as couriers, look-outs, and providers of transport and shelter.
Tyrone is a different proposition entirely. There, the hard-core terrorists live locally. Major Bob Andrew, the KOSB garrison commander at Cookstown, explained: ''The Provos in Belfast or Londonderry tend to stage incidents timed to catch the six o'clock news. The people down here are out to inflict casualties on us. They are a harder breed entirely, and very, very dangerous.
''This has always been a committed Republican area. The cowboy element was caught or shot years ago. What we have now is an experienced, professional enemy with enormous local support. They should never be underestimated. That can be fatal. Last year, they mortared the unit in our base at 10 minutes to midnight on Hogmanay, hoping to catch them off-guard. That's a measure of their calculating approach.''
Colonel Clive Fairweather, now chief of staff at Army headquarters Scotland, and until recently the KOSB's commanding officer, said: ''The battalion has a huge area to cover as back-up to the RUC. There is only so much that can be done to minimise casualties to ourselves. And we always have to remember that we are there to help keep the peace.
''It would be both impractical and counterproductive to stop and search every vehicle that crosses the border. We have to check at random, hoping that the possibility of discovery will deter the terrorists from bringing weapons and explosives across in cars or vans. Even that, unfortunately, exposes our men to danger. But there is little choice.
''This was far from a regular attack. It's the kind of stunt they can pull only occasionally, although they always have the advantage of surprise on their side. They pick the time and the place. We cannot be in maximum strength everywhere.''
In a bid to keep the lid on their TAOR (tactical area of responsibility), the KOSB and other troops grouped along the borders have adopted a policy of using helicopters as a force multiplier, airlifting the same teams of soldiers to five or six widely separated patrol areas in the course of a single day.
And to prevent the terrorists from mounting a quick ambush on patrols, the helicopters usually fly in pairs, with one depositing its soldiers on the ground while the other flies ''top cover'' with a second squad which can be landed in moments as reinforcements or to block the IRA's retreat. Given the Provos' insistence on a clear escape route, this has proved highly effective.
But as Wednesday proved, the terrorists' planning and execution of hit-and-run attacks is unquestionably professional. Sadly for the security forces, Derryard may not be the final atrocity of 1989.