Workers rush toddlers into nursery as gang of 30 masked men march through Newtownards
Meanwhile, a post-primary school had to be locked down after the gang gathered in the town centre
Children as young as three and four years old had to be rushed into their nursery school as workers were alerted to masked men marching through Newtownards.
Meanwhile, a post-primary school had to be locked down after the gang gathered in Newtownards town centre.
The group of up to 30 men then moved towards houses in Weavers Grange where they were intercepted by police.
At Playcentre Manor Court children and staff were in their outside play area around 11am when a neighbour informed them that masked men were heading in their direction and to get the children inside immediately.
A source from the pre-school said: "As we were getting them inside a group of about 10-12 hooded and masked men walked towards the setting.
"They crossed to the other side of the road so were not on our side, but were in full view of some of the children.
“Once inside the children settled to play. I informed the parents of the children attending to let them know.
"Some opted to come early to collect their children and parents were alarmed that this happened at 11am outside a pre-school. We didn't have to close early.”
The person added: “We think a couple of children saw them. It was difficult for the staff to try and support the children getting them inside quickly not knowing what was going on in light of recent attacks.
"The main thing was getting the children inside as quickly as possible and shocked that this was happening at 11am outside our pre-school. We didn't have time to think about what might happen.”
Regent House Grammar School is situated about 300 yards away from where the men had assembled.
Headmaster Michael Carville said the school liaised with the police and decided to close the gates.
Police attempted to disperse the masked gang as they approached the Weavers Grange housing estate.
A helicopter was seen circling over the area and police units are involved.
A PSNI officer said: “A number of men, some of whom were masked were noted by police outside Newtownards court house this morning.
“Police officers present gathered evidence and enquiries are ongoing.”
The incident occurred against the back drop of a UDA feud that is ongoing in the Co Down area between two drug gangs.
North Down MLA Stephen Dunne said: “There is absolutely no place for this type of activity on our streets. This violence and destruction, which is endangering lives is totally unrepresentative of our local Community, and the area which we are proud to call home.
“Violence and criminality in whatever form it takes, is and always has been wrong and must be unequivocally condemned. I would appeal for calm and urge people to end this violence and criminal behaviour immediately. Those responsible must be brought to justice.
The PSNI are appealing for information, and I would encourage anyone to contact the PSNI to assist with their ongoing enquiries.”
In a statement, Ards and North Down District Commander Superintendent Johnston McDowell thanked the local community for their ongoing patience and support as officers deal with the drug feud in the area.
He said to date 11 homes across Newtownards, Bangor, Ballywalter, and Donaghadee have been subject to attack by rival factions previously linked to the UDA.
These have included petrol bomb attacks, windows being smashed with hammers and bricks, and on one occasion a pipe bomb was thrown at a property while the occupants, including four children, were inside.
Superintendent McDowell added: “We have a robust policing operation in place to both investigate these attacks, and deter further instances of violence and damage to homes.
"We have carried out a number of targeted search operations and have arrested five men, two of whom have been charged with offences, including arson with intent to endanger life, and have appeared in court.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank our local community who have already been of great assistance to us providing information, both directly to police and via the Crimestoppers charity, this has allowed us to identify individuals involved in this violent criminality and progress our investigations.
"Their information has been vital and further searches and arrests will come.
“I’m aware there has been some unhelpful social media speculation which has added to community concerns. Police will continue to provide regular updates to the community through our social media feeds and through engagement with local elected representatives.”
Superintendent McDowell added that the attacks were “completely unacceptable, incredibly reckless and place our communities at grave risk."
He added: “We are intent on bringing them to a complete stop, arresting the perpetrators and placing them before the courts.
“I want to urge residents of our District to remain vigilant and to report anything that gives rise to concern to us so we can take the appropriate action.
"Local people will continue to see an increased police presence in the coming days as we maintain pressure on these criminals and work to thwart their efforts to wreak havoc in our communities.
“I would also pay tribute to the dedicated efforts of our local police officers who are working day and night to keep the people of Ards and North Down safe.”
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