Irish foreign minister taken off stage in Belfast after security alert

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Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney learns about a potential security threat during his speech at 'Building Common Ground' event of the The John And Pat Hume Foundation in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Britain March 25, 2022 in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. The John And Pat Hume Foundation/via REUTERS

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  • Van driver ordered to go to venue at gunpoint
  • Hoax device 'designed to cause maximum disruption'
  • Loyalist militants likely behind hijacking, police say
  • UK cut threat level for Northern Ireland this week

BELFAST, March 25 (Reuters) - Pro-British loyalist militant groups were likely behind the hijacking and placing of a suspect device in a van that was ordered to drive to an event where Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was speaking on Friday, police said.

Coveney was taken off stage by officials during a speech at a peace building event and quickly driven away from the venue in his government car, a Reuters journalist at the scene said.

The device placed by the two gunmen was declared a hoax but was clearly designed to cause maximum disruption, Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told a news conference. He would not speculate on the motivation of the crime.

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"Just think about this, the victim believed he was driving a van with a live bomb and that his family were being threatened," McEwan said.

"At this early stage of the investigation our assessment is that these crimes were carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups. We're keeping an open mind but one of the primary lines of investigation is the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force)."

The UVF were among the loyalist militant groups who last year temporarily withdrew their support for a 1998 peace deal in protest at the trade border Britain's exit from the European Union created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. read more

A small group of militant groups remain active and carry out occasional attacks but their capacity is tiny relative to the 30-year conflict between Irish nationalists seeking unification with the Irish Republic and the British Army and pro-British loyalists determined to keep Northern Ireland under British rule

Friday's incident came three days after London lowered its Northern Ireland-related terrorism threat level for the first time in more than a decade, with police saying operations against Irish nationalist militants were making attacks less likely. read more

Coveney, who was taken to a secure location after the event, said on Twitter that he was "saddened and frustrated" that someone had been attacked and victimised.

The driver was in tears inside the venue after alerting security officials to the incident and apologising to attendees for being forced to drive to the site, the Reuters journalist said. He was later taken to hospital, police said.

"I spoke to the poor man whose van was hijacked. ... He's lost his memory. He's traumatised. It's just unreal," Father Aidan O'Kane, the manager of the Houben Centre where the event was being held, told Reuters.

A funeral in the adjacent church also had to be evacuated and continued in a car park, O'Kane said.

Britain's Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis said the incident was a reminder that there is a small minority willing to use violence to advance their goals.

"These actions are reprehensible. I utterly condemn those involved," Lewis said in a statement.

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Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Frances Kerry

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