A man shot dead by the PSNI at a checkpoint in County Down was unarmed at the time, it has been revealed.

23-year-old Steven Colwell from Cullybackey outside Ballymena, was killed on Church Street in Ballynahinch, County Down, at around 11.30am on Sunday. He was shot twice in a hail of gunfire. Colwell was reported to have been driving a car stolen earlier near Ballykinlar in South Down.

The PSNI are refusing to disclose the exact circumstances of the shooting or what prompted them to open fire, but it is believed British forces suspected dissident republicans were travelling in the car.

Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan has begun an inquiry and investigators from her office spent the rest of the day at the scene.

They are trying to determine whether a warning was issued before opening fire, and whether the car was considered to pose an immediate threat.

The two women and three men who were in the silver-coloured BMW car along with Mr Colwell were released yesterday on bail after being questioned.

Reports of the involvement of a second vehicle could not be confirmed. The ombudsman’s office would not comment beyond an appeal for information.

It is not the first time the PSNI has killed a person at a vehicle checkpoint. County Armagh man Neil McConville ied in hospital after officers shot him when his car failed to stop at a checkpoint near Lisburn, County Antrim, in April 2003.

SDLP Policing Board member Alex Attwood said the latest shooting and another in which police fired shots at a fleeing vehicle in west Belfast two weeks ago raised “serious issues” about PSNI policy.

“The use of lethal fire in the circumstances of this case is highly questionable and on the facts known at present it is very hard to determine what level of threat existed against the police and other people who it is reported were at the scene,” he said.

“This requires the police to say up front what has happened [and] for any officer on the ground or at command level to be suspended where appropriate.

“This is an enormous tragedy for the family and it requires an enormous response from the policing institutions.

“Any wrongdoing must be prosecuted and any other failure must be faced up to and corrected.”

Local unionist assembly member Jim Wells said: “It is a shock.

“It is the first time something like this has happened in Ballynahinch.

“I’m sure the police would not have opened fire unless they had cause to do so.”

Fr Gerard McCrory, a priest from St Patrick’s church in Ballynahinch, had just finished celebrating Easter Sunday Mass when he went to the scene. He said he found the victim a few metres from the vehicle and thought it was a road crash.

“As I looked at the person on the ground it was fairly obvious he was quite close to death,” he told a local radio station.

“Just shortly after that I was told there was a shooting incident and apparently there were a couple of cars involved. I did administer to the man because I had reason to think he belonged to the Catholic community. Obviously one thinks of the person’s family and it’s just dreadful news to get on Easter Sunday.”

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© 2006 Irish Republican News