MRS THATCHER branded the IRA as evil and cowardly yesterday as she led

a wave of revulsion over the brutal murder of Army wife Heidi Hazell.

The Prime Minister, shocked by the atrocity which left German-born Mrs

Hazell, 26, riddled with bullets, mixed her emotion with a stark warning

to British forces and their families.

Speaking during a visit to Forres Academy, and urging lasting

vigilance, she said: ''Let this message get across: Terrorists don't

hesitate to attack wives and children, people who are totally innocent.

That shows the evil nature of the work they do.''

She added: ''We are up against the cowardly actions of terrorists who

go for innocent, defenceless people.''

Mrs Hazell's husband of two years, 27-year-old staff sergeant Clive,

from Kilton, near Worksop, Nottingham- shire, was away on exercise at

the time and was said to be devastated by the killing.

As his wife sat in her car near their married quarters in the suburb

of Unna Messen, Dortmund, a gunman dressed like a British soldier -- in

camouflage jacket, Army trousers and a beret -- pumped 14 bullets at her

with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle.

Yesterday, the IRA admitted responsibility for the outrage and claimed

they had believed Mrs Hazell was a member of the British Army garrison

in Dortmund, although they did not apologise.

The Army dismissed the excuse -- there are only 20 WRACs in Dortmund,

all single and living in protected areas away from the married quarters.

A Rhine Army spokesman said: ''We believe this was a deliberate

attack. It appears there's a psychopathic murderer on the loose.''

As an urgent security review started, soldiers' wives in Germany were

refusing to be cowed and locked up in ''security ghettoes.''

Mrs Judy Street, chairman of the Federation of Army Wives, said: ''We

do not want to be forced into the barracks and stop leading our lives as

we wish. The general feeling is not one of fear, but anger.''

Members of the armed forces and their families abroad are sitting

targets for terrorists because they have to display UK-style

registration plates on their cars.

Yesterday, bouquets of flowers marked the spot in Unna Messen where

Mrs Hazell died in her bullet-riddled Saab, which came to rest under a

huge chestnut tree as she reversed.

Defence Secretary Mr Tom King condemned Thursday night's killing as a

''despicable attack. To shoot down an unarmed young woman in cold blood

strikes a new depth of depravity.''

Labour leader Neil Kinnock added: ''Of all the cowardly attacks of the

Provisional IRA, this one reached new depths of cowardice.''

Clive Hazell, an instrument technician with nine years Army service,

and his wife were married in Kilton at a ceremony attended by Mrs

Hazell's family.

His father said of Heidi: ''She was a lovely lady.'' As for the IRA,

''they are cowards, clear-cut.'' He added: ''They knew what they were

doing. They had been watching her.''

The murder is being linked to the shooting a week ago of two teenage

soldiers in Munster by three men with Irish accents.