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Simon Coveney left the Belfast event after armed kidnappers demanded to be taken to the venue

LOYALIST paramilitaries are said to be behind a terrorist attack at a peace rally in Belfast addressed by Simon Coveney

Government sources believe the foreign secretary was the target of the attack, in which an innocent man was forced to drive a van carrying a potentially explosive device to the venue.

Mr Coveney was speaking at the John and Pat Hume Foundation’s Building Common Ground event at the Houban Center on Crumlin Road in Belfast.

The Government believes the attack was pre-planned and linked to the ongoing debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Politicians on all sides of Northern Ireland’s partition have condemned the incident.

A van was hijacked at gunpoint in a loyalist neighborhood of Belfast before the driver was forced to escort a number of armed people to a spot where the minister was speaking.

Mr Coveney was forced to stop mid-speech after his security team told him they needed to leave the building urgently. He was escorted to a “safe place” by Gardaí and the PSNI.

An Army bomb disposal team was called to the scene after a canister described as “suspicious” was found in the van outside the venue.

Mr. Coveney has been the target of loyalist harassment in the past. His picture was placed on anti-protocol banners displayed in a number of loyalist areas late last year.

However, the bombing signals a huge and unexpected escalation in violent loyalist opposition to the Brexit Protocol arrangements.

No group is expected to claim credit for the attack, but there are concerns this escalation in activity could continue into the summer months.

The bomb consisted of a large cylinder believed to contain a flammable liquid, along with what appeared to be an attached explosive device.

A controlled explosion was carried out by Army engineering officers on site. A loud bang was heard just after 1 p.m. Friday afternoon.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the incident and said those who persisted with violence had little support, while Northern Ireland Foreign Secretary Brandon Lewis expressed “solidarity” with Mr Coveney.

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said: “The attack on an event involving Minister Simon Coveney at the Houben Center in North Belfast today is a disgrace.

“Those behind the hijacking of a van left on church property have no place in society.”

Local priest Father Gary Donegan, who also spoke at the event, explained that Mr. Coveney had paused in his speech for about five minutes when it was cut off.

“I saw the close protection team waving at me and I wondered what they’re asking me to do?

“They turned around and told me that someone had been kidnapped at gunpoint and had driven a van into the ground with an alleged device and we had to get the minister out of there and evacuate the place.

“So we had to get the minister away immediately.”

He described the evacuation of the building, which he says is a “local community center,” and said a funeral was canceled by the evacuation.

“Whatever mindless people have done, what they did today, forget the actual event itself, but there is a grieving family that hasn’t even had a funeral now.”

After being made aware of an issue, the minister told the audience he had to go and hoped to be back in a few minutes.

A 400m cordon was erected, meaning the burial had to take place on the street.

The driver of the vehicle was in tears at the venue after alerting security officials to the incident and apologizing to attendees for being forced to drive to the site.

Mr Coveney said he was “sad and frustrated that someone has been attacked and harassed in this way and my thoughts are with him and his family”.

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Father John Graven conducts a memorial service in the car park of Holy Cross Church in north Belfast due to the security alert at the nearby Houben Centre. Image: Colm Lenaghan/pacemaker

Tim Attwood, secretary of the Hume Foundation, told Reuters: “There is a security alert and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) are currently assessing the situation. Everyone had to evacuate the center.”

The PSNI said officers are currently attending a safety alert in the Crumlin Road area of ​​north Belfast.

Motorists are advised to avoid the area and seek alternative main routes for their journey.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Hume Foundation is “an organization dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation.”

“The attack on her and Simon Coveney this morning is an attempt to withdraw that will never succeed,” he said.

Former Deputy First Secretary Michelle O’Neill condemned the actions of those who targeted an event focused on peace, reconciliation and finding common ground.

“Those determined to cause instability and disruption will not succeed. Those of us who are committed to peace will not be deterred.”

The UK on Tuesday lowered its threat from Northern Ireland terrorism for the first time in more than a decade, with police saying operations targeting militant Irish nationalists made attacks less likely.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it was “hard to imagine what goes through the minds of people who engage in such reckless, senseless behavior.”

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https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/simon-coveney-was-target-of-attack-by-loyalist-paramilitaries-in-belfast-41486371.html Simon Coveney left the Belfast event after armed kidnappers demanded to be taken to the venue

Fry Electronics Team

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