A member of the PSNI police has been killed tonight in a gun attack in Craigavon, County Armagh.
He is the first member of the force to die in the conflict since it was named from the RUC in 2001.
According to early reports, a PSNI patrol was travelling in an unmarked car in the Lismore Manor estate in the nationalist Brownlow area of the town.
The patrol was “investigating suspicious activity” when it came into contact with armed republicans, thought to be members of the north Armagh brigade of the Continuity IRA.
One of the PSNI members was killed, while another was slightly injured.
The attack, combined with Saturday’s night armed assualt on a British Army base in County Antrim in which two British soldiers were killed and two others injured, represent a dramatic escalation in the situation in the North of Ireland.
British Crown forces were also searching today in Lurgan, County Armagh, following a telephone warning of a bomb near the town’s PSNI station.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has said a device found outside one of their offices in Cookstown, County Tyrone was a pipe bomb.
The spate of attacks by militant republicans is likely to throw a pall over the political process ahead of a high-profile event in Washington next week.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are due to leave for the US tomorrow ahead of the annual St Patrick’s Day gathering of Irish politicians at the White House.
The latest gun attack is also set to polarise opinion among republicans and nationalists across Ireland.
Smaller groups such as Republican Sinn Fein have said armed actions are an inevitable consequence of British rule and have called on republicans and nationalists to refuse co-operation with the Crown forces.
But Sinn Fein has condemned the attacks and backed calls for the public to pass information to the police about the activities of the breakaway organisations, even including against former comrades.
Commenting after tonight’s shooting, local Sinn Fein Assembly member John O’Dowd said it was an attack on the peace process.
“It is wrong and it is counter productive and I would extend my condolences to the dead man’s family at this time,” he said.
“This is a time for strong political leadership and cool heads. It is a time for all political parties and the two governments to recommit to the principles which have underpinned the peace process and delivered the stability of recent years.”