A group of masked and armed men forced a delivery driver to transport a suspicious device to a police station in Derry in Northern Ireland, triggering a security alert and evacuations.

The hijackers commandeered the grey Ford Mondeo in the Currynierin area of the city on Sunday night and ordered the driver to drive 2.5 miles to Waterside police station, where he abandoned the car and raised the alarm.

Nearby homes were evacuated and a school and several roads were closed on Monday as a police security operation continued. Suspicion fell on the New IRA, a small dissident republican group that has a foothold in Derry.

Clive Beatty, a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) superintendent, said the driver had been subjected to a horrific ordeal. “This reckless and despicable act has brought chaos to the local community,” he said. “Local businesses and a local school are also experiencing disruption this morning.”

The incident followed a bomb attack on a police vehicle in Strabane, 14 miles (23km) south of Derry, on 17 November. The improvised explosive device did not cause any injuries. Police arrested and released four men.

Politicians called the latest incident futile and disgraceful. “These people that reach for the past need to hear that it’s not available to them,” said Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader.

Colum Eastwood, the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) leader and MP for Derry, said: “Those behind this are achieving nothing by disrupting the lives of people in our city. They enjoy no support in this community and are actively harming the cause of Irish unity through their futile actions. Violence of any kind was wrong 50 years ago and it’s wrong today.”

Ryan McCready, an Ulster Unionist party (UUP) councillor, said about 50 people had spent the night in a community centre.

The Provisional IRA pioneered the proxy bomb, also known as the human bomb, during the Troubles when it forced people to deliver bombs to targets. Patsy Gillespie was strapped into a van and forced to drive to an army checkpoint outside Derry in October 1990. He died along with five soldiers.

Security analysts say dissident republicans lack the support and capacity for sustained attacks but can still cause disruption and concern.

The alert in Derry came as the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, was to introduce legislation at Westminster to formally defer an assembly election to spring 2023.

Downing Street hopes that will buy time for a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol that could entice the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) back to power sharing. Its boycott has mothballed the Stormont executive and assembly.

The Northern Ireland executive formation bill will also let Heaton-Harris cut the salaries and expenses of assembly members by almost a third pending the restoration of devolved government.

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