5 June 2008 Edition
AMBUSH The deaths of Tyrone IRA Volunteers Tony Doris, Lawrence McNally and Pete Ryan
Unanswered questions surround SAS ambush
By Laura Friel
IRA Volunteers Tony Doris, Lawrence McNally and Pete Ryan died as a result of a SAS ambush in County Tyrone in 1991. This month is marked not only by the anniversary of their deaths but also the emergence of inconsistencies concerning the way in which they died which have sinister implications.
It has always been known that the three Volunteers, who were on active service at the time of their deaths, died as a result of an SAS ambush. In classic shoot-to-kill style, presumably acting on information, the SAS established a killing zone and waited for the IRA ASU to enter the area.
According to the RUC’s version, the SAS opened fire on the car in which the three IRA men were travelling and the ferocity of the British soldiers’ firepower crashed and ignited the vehicle in which they all perished. The official version suggests the IRA only fired one shot and the entire incident was all over within three minutes.
Perhaps this is what happened. But the families don’t believe it.
Close examination of released documents have exposed anomalies within the official version of events.
There is evidence to suggest that two of the three Volunteers ran from the vehicle and there was a sustained return of fire. There is also evidence to place two men injured and possibly incapacitated at two different locations and at a distance from the vehicle.
The question is: how did the bodies of all three Volunteers end up inside and just beside the burnt-out vehicle? And if two of the men were injured or even killed at some distance from their vehicle, why were their bodies returned to their families “burnt beyond recognition”?
Initial media and witness reports indicated there had been a gun battle between the SAS and IRA Volunteers that lasted up to ten minutes. The reports also said the Vauxhall car used by the Volunteers exploded into flames after being hit by a rocket or grenade of some description.
According to the official version, there were ten British soldiers involved in the ambush. The soldiers were all armed with Heckler & Koch G3K assault rifles and 7.62 NATO-standard ammunition. The IRA Volunteers had two AKM assault rifles which were recovered from the scene. Ammunition for these is a 7.62 x 39mm Eastern Bloc round.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, a map was drawn by forensic scientists acting for the RUC. The map shows the positions of cars, bullet cases and fragments, the positioning of the bodies and the location of the British soldiers during the shooting.
Significantly, the map also identifies the position of a bone fragment and of a blood-stained mask with a gunshot hole.
A legal representative acting for the Ryan family, Padraig Ó Muirigh, pointed out that there remains a number of unanswered issues concerning these exhibits.
“These exhibits are shown to be in two different locations and at some considerable distance from the Vauxhall car in which, according to the state’s version of events, the three men died from a combination of gunshot wounds and as a result of being engulfed in flames when the vehicle ignited,” Ó Muirigh said.
“The bone fragment is located on the map beyond where the Vauxhall came to a halt, further along Hanover Square. There seems to have been no forensic identification of the bone fragment – in particular, whether the exhibit is human or animal remains yet this might be a crucial piece of evidence potentially placing one of the three men away from the Vauxhall and injured.
“The mask, which has a bullet hole through it and is covered in blood, is located after the bridge and at a distance behind the halted Vauxhall. This potentially places a second man away from the Vauxhall and injured, possibly fatally.
“Curiously, while the RUC attempted to trace fibres from the mask, there seems to have been no attempt to identify who was wearing the mask by testing the blood sample. There appears to have been no scientific examination of the bone fragments.
“Until these questions are answered, alternative scenarios cannot be ruled out. I have recently written to the PSNI requesting clarification as to whether these exhibits are still available. If so, we will be seeking to have them examined by an independent forensics expert.”
According to the forensic scientist acting for the RUC, Brian Thompson, only one round was fired from the two AKM rifles in the possession of the IRA Volunteers. But a further 120 AKM spent ammunition cases were found at the scene.
Thompson’s explains this away by suggesting other cases and bullet fragments are the result of rounds spontaneously propelling themselves out of the car once it ignited.
But this has been recently questioned by an independent forensic firearms expert.
Dr Alexander has a long and distinguished career in the Forensic Science Service with particular expertise in relation to firearms.
Dr Alexander believes the distance of the AKM cases from the vehicle, up to 150 feet, and their distribution may not be consistent with Thompson’s explanation. A simple examination of the cases would confirm if they were consistent with rounds being fired from a weapon or spent due to explosion triggered by a fire. But, to date, lawyers acting for the families have been unable to gain access to evidence, both material and photographic.
The families pointed out that “the positioning of the cases at one location, in doorways and behind garden walls, suggests that someone was running and firing along the far side of the street and the bone fragment marked where this run ended and he was shot”.
“Another shorter line of AKM cases, along the near side of the street from the burnt out car, suggests to us the path of a second person running and shooting an AKM assault rifle,” said the families.
In a statement the families said they believe there was a gun battle in Coagh on the morning of the killings.
“We believe that Lawrence and Pete exited the car and fought a running battle with British troops before being overcome and immobilised through gunshot wounds. They were then taken prisoner. Eyewitness accounts lead us to believe that they were both alive and out of the car after the engagement,” said the families.
“Evidence from the scene supports the belief that there was a running gun battle on either side of the street. And if they were out of the car, fighting, then how did they end up back in the car, or beside it, and burnt?” they said.
The expert witness agrees:
“The position of the cartridge cases upon the plan could be consistent with a person retreating up Hanover Square in the general direction of Main Street and firing more or less towards the Coagh bridge end of Hanover Square.
“This is because an AK47 ejects its fired cartridge cases from the right-hand side of the weapon and thus away from the right hand side of the firer,” said Dr Alexander.
The forensic scientist is also concerned about the possible implications of the location of the mask and bone fragment.
“The location of these two items at effectively opposite ends of the scene could point to several different possibilities.
“The location of the mask might suggest that one or more persons had actually completely exited the vehicle outside the car park and that at least one was shot and killed at this point.
“The position indicated for the bone fragment could indicate that at least one person had retreated from the car point to that vicinity, possibly firing back towards the pursuing soldiers using an AK47 series rifle and was then shot at that point.
“If either, or possibly both, of these scenarios were correct then it would clearly be inexplicable how such a person came to be burned due to the fire at the car,” said the scientist.
In a statement the families conclude that at least one or two of the IRA men were injured and captured but “rather than being afforded the rights of any soldier as laid out in the Geneva Convention, they were not given medical attention and held as prisoners of war, instead they were deliberately burnt.
“The autopsy report on Tony Doris includes a carbon monoxide test to establish if he died in the fire or beforehand. There were no such test results for Pete and Lawrence and the question arises if they were in fact carried out and the results withheld,” said the families.
“We accept that it was a war situation and that injury or death was a likely outcome for all participants in that morning’s action. There are nevertheless rules of war which govern how combatants treat each other after the action has ended and a particular soldier no longer poses a threat to the other side.
“We believe these rules were broken in a deliberate and pre-meditated way by British forces – either British Army or RUC – and we believe that the forensic evidence from the scene supports this belief.”