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Last Updated: Friday, 17 December, 2004, 13:10 GMT
Irish trio 'have fled Colombia'
James Monaghan (left), Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly
Arrest warrants have been issued for the three men
Three Irishmen convicted of training Marxist rebels in Colombia have fled the country, its Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio told Reuters news agency.

An appeal court on Thursday overturned earlier acquittals of Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan and sentenced them to 17 years in jail.

But the men had vanished while on bail and a nationwide hunt was launched following the appeal court decision.

Mr Osorio said the authorities would try to establish where they had gone.

"We know they left the country, but we will try to find out what country has received them in order to see that justice is done," he said.

Interpol has been called in as the hunt for the men intensifies, it has been reported.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern earlier said that the appeal court decision had come as "a surprise".

The last time I saw them was the night we took them out of jail in June
Caitriona Ruane
Sinn Fein

"My initial reaction is surprise at the overturning of the verdict, given the complete exoneration in the lower court, and secondly, the severity of the sentence," he said.

He added that Irish officials would contact the Colombian authorities about the case.

The men, who had been accused of being IRA members, were found guilty in the April trial of travelling on false passports.

They were acquitted of training Farc guerrillas, but the Colombian attorney general has now successfully appealed against that decision.

A judge had ordered the men to remain in the country pending the appeal.

Sinn Fein assembly member Caitriona Ruane said she did not trust the claim by the Colombian authorities that the trio had left the country.

Ms Ruane, who has long campaigned for the men's release, said she had no idea of they were but she intended to go to Colombia within days.

"The last time I saw them was the night we took them out of jail in June," she said.

Party President Gerry Adams has said the verdict was "outrageous" and a "grievous miscarriage of justice".

However, hardline unionists said the affair proved Sinn Fein was "not fit" to share power in Northern Ireland.

Airport arrests

Ulster Unionist South Antrim MP David Burnside said: "It's time we accepted the proof that republican Sinn Fein leadership still have a terrorist threat, still are involved in widespread criminality throughout the whole of Ireland, have links with international terrorist organisations.

"They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. It's time we moved on."

DUP assembly member Ian Paisley Jr said the "decision has far wider ramifications than what's happening in the judicial system in Colombia".

McCauley, 41, is from Lurgan in County Armagh, Monaghan, 58, is from County Donegal and Connolly, 38, is from Dublin.

The three had been detained at Bogota's El Dorado airport in August 2001 as they were about to board a flight out of the country.

Their arrest led to speculation that Irish republicans had formed links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The main charge against them was that they had been teaching the rebels urban terrorism techniques.

The Irishmen strenuously denied this, saying they were in the area to monitor the fledgling peace process as well as being eco-tourists.




BBC NEWS:VIDEO AND AUDIO
Colombia verdict 'was surprise'




SEE ALSO:
Adams slams Colombia verdict
16 Dec 04 |  Northern Ireland
Irish trio sentenced in Colombia
16 Dec 04 |  Northern Ireland
Q&A: The Colombia connection
16 Dec 04 |  Northern Ireland
Irishmen stay put in Bogota jail
29 Apr 04 |  Northern Ireland
Colombia accused address court
30 Jul 03 |  Northern Ireland


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