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Metal detector enthusiast finds Northern Ireland's largest weapons haul 'in years'

One of Northern Ireland's biggest hauls of terrorist weapons "in years" was accidentally discovered by a metal detector enthusiast, security sources confirmed Wednesday.

Sixteen modern semi-automatic handguns and 800 rounds of ammunition were discovered near Belfast on Saturday, detective superintendent Glenn Wright from the Serious Crime Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said in a statement.

"The recovery of these weapons has undoubtedly thwarted the attempts of criminals to inflict death, injury and misery on the community,” he added.

The weapons, recovered in woodland near a school, were found after the unidentified treasure-hunter picked up a signal on his hand-held detector. Police gave no further details.

Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness took to Twitter to praise the discovery of the arms, thought to have been used by one of Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups opposed to peace deals between Britain and Ireland. 

"Good news that 16 hand guns have been recovered by Police in East Belfast,they deserve our thanks," the Sinn Fein leader wrote. "Public now need to know who had them?" 

Another local lawmaker, Jimmy Spratt, who is also a retired police officer, told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper that he believed the cache had not been buried underground.

“It was a matter of inches from the surface,” the Democratic Unionist MLA, member of parliament told the paper. “From my previous police experience the situation looked quite amateurish.

“It looks like they were put into a five-gallon oil drum and buried,” he added. “It was fresh digging that has taken place fairly recently. The good thing about it is that at least now the weapons are in safe hands. They cannot now be used for the purposes for which they were brought in and that was to cause murder and mayhem on the streets."