British soldiers ambushed and killed three Irish Republican Army guerrillas in this County Tyrone village early Monday as the multi-party initiative to forge a new political future for Northern Ireland continued to founder amid a dramatic escalation in violence.
The IRA admitted that Peter Ryan, Tony Dorris and Lawrence McNally were on "active service" and gunning for an unknown target when their hijacked car came under intense submachine gun fire in the predominantly Protestant village about breakfast time.
As neighbors dived to the floors of their homes for protection, soldiers concealed along the village's broad main street fired repeatedly into the auto, which crashed and burst into flames, setting off clips of ammunition inside the vehicle.
Two of the gunmen, their clothes on fire, managed to get out of the vehicle before falling dead.
Army spokesmen, who confirmed that the operation was the work of a "special covert team" operating on advance intelligence, would not say whether any of the three men was able to return fire. Two charred rifles were recovered from the badly burned bodies, security sources said.
One of the dead men, Ryan, had been on the run from authorities since escaping from Belfast's Crumlin Road Jail in 1981. McNally lost a brother to Protestant loyalist gunmen two years ago. His other brother, Francis, is a locally elected councilor. Visiting the scene of his brother's death, Francis McNally called the three slain men "good soldiers" who were "executed by the British Crown forces."
However, others hailed the killings as a hopeful sign that the army is being given the freedom it needs to defeat the IRA.
"Innocent life has been spared, and we have to be grateful for that," said the Rev. William McCrea, who represents the area in the British Parliament.
"This is exactly what I've been asking for, for so many months," continued McCrea, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, the most caustic political critic of the IRA. "I would far rather have dead terrorists than dead law-abiding citizens. These men were on a mission of death. It seems justice was done."
Although the killing of armed IRA men generally does not arouse broad public sympathy, the apparently one-sided gun battle has raised new "shoot to kill" allegations against the army, which in the past four years has shot to death 19 republicans, some of whom were found to have been unarmed.
"I hope that an effort was made to arrest these people with minimum force, as is required by law," said Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the main group representing Roman Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland. "Otherwise we are not talking about the process of law, we are talking about the law of the jungle."
"I have no doubt that the volunteers murdered today would have surrendered if given the chance," said Richard McAuley, chief spokesman for Sinn Fein, the legal political party that supports the outlawed IRA's 20-year campaign to force Britain out of Northern Ireland.
The Coagh ambush was the latest chapter in five weeks of heightened bloodshed, roughly coinciding with the scheduled start of talks on the prospect of replacing "direct rule" of the province by London with increased powers of local government, to involve some level of power-sharing between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists.
The negotiations are intended to involve both the British and Irish governments and all political parties in Northern Ireland with the notable exception of Sinn Fein. But the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Brooke, has seen his hard-fought initiative suffer delay upon delay. Halfway through the scheduled 10 weeks of talks, all the sides have yet to sit down at the same table.
The latest stalemate centers on infighting between the two main Unionist parties and the Social Democratic and Labor Party. The SDLP fears that the unionist camp will try to pull out of the talks after "Strand 1" in London and before the Irish government is supposed to enter the picture. Neither side can agree on who should serve as chairman of "Strand 2" in Belfast.
While the talks go nowhere, the IRA has used new tactics and weapons to kill or maim scores of soldiers, police officers and civilians. The Coagh ambush came after a steady buildup in IRA activity, prompting the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, to dub it a "revenge killing."
A sampling of the past month's attacks:
* In a daring maneuver Friday night, the IRA rolled a truck containing 2,000 pounds of explosives down a slope into the Glenanne army barracks in rural County Armagh. The massive blast, heard up to 30 miles away, killed three members of the army's Ulster Defense Regiment and wounded more than a dozen others.
* Last month, the IRA killed a policeman and injured three others in a rocket attack on their armored car in west Belfast, shot to death a policeman on patrol in south Belfast and tossed a homemade grenade over the wall of a central Belfast army base, fatally wounding one soldier and critically injuring another.
* The organization also shot to death a Protestant grocer at his business in south Belfast--targeted because his firm supplied produce to the army and police; exploded a huge van bomb in a predominantly Protestant estate in Cookstown, County Tyrone, damaging more than 100 homes but somehow killing no one, and planted a car bomb that killed a ranking County Armagh member of the Orange Order, the main Protestant loyalist organization in the province.
Some politicians and observers charge that the IRA is trying to poison the already tainted atmosphere of political compromise.
Denis Murray, chief Ireland correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corp., suggested that the increased IRA activity represents the group's "trying to make an impact on the talks."
"I think republicans fear a political settlement," he said, "so they might find it difficult to continue their campaign of killing people if all other parties in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic do agree on the future of Ulster."
Others maintain, however, that whatever the outcome of the talks, the major issue will continue to be undercutting the IRA with military force alone, not political reform.
"This war must go on," said Ian Paisley, the hard-line leader of the Democratic Unionists, in an interview at the funeral for one of the three Ulster Defense Regiment soldiers, who were buried Monday. "There must be no cessation until the IRA is put under the soil or put behind bars."