Northern Ireland

Worn and rusting rocket launcher still capable of killing

Rocket launcher (RPG7) seized by police
The Russian-made RPG7 was old and worn but raises questions about when dissident republicans acquired it

Dozens of Russian-made rocket launchers were brought into Northern Ireland by the Provisional IRA in a series of consignments of weapons from Libya during the 1980s.

Easy to carry and fire, and capable of piercing the armour of military vehicles and police Land Rovers, the RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) were used with devastating effect.

The version found in a house in Hawthorn Street in west Belfast is an older model with a wooden stock instead of the metal tube in later versions.

Rust is visible on the metal parts and there are signs of wear and tear. It is not clear if this is simply the result of the launcher's age, or evidence that it has been used in previous attacks.

Weapons

The warhead that would have been fired from the launcher also appears to have been in storage for a long time.

While the weapon is clearly old, police say it was capable of being fired and therefore capable of causing death.

It is not clear if the rocket launcher had been in storage in the house where it was found for a long time, or brought there recently in preparation for an attack on a police vehicle.

The find provides more evidence that not all of the Provisional IRA's weapons were decommissioned.

It has been known for some time that dissident republicans have access to, and have used, a range of weapons previously under the control of the Provisional IRA.

This includes guns and Semtex explosives, but only a small number of RPGs have been recovered from dissident groups.

There is no evidence that dissident republicans have secured a new supply chain, so the likelihood is that this weapon was also formerly in the hands of the Provisional IRA.

The question is, have dissidents had this rocket launcher in their arsenal for a long time, or was it acquired much more recently when a former member of the Provisional IRA with access to an old arms dump decided to join dissident ranks?

That is one of the issues the police will be trying to establish.

The PSNI will be alarmed by the discovery of a weapon capable of piercing the armour of police cars or Land Rovers, and killing those inside.

But there will also be a sense of relief that it is not a much more recent version of a rocket launcher as that would indicate that dissidents have secured a new supply of weapons.