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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 21:59 GMT
'IRA three' charged by Colombians
Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley
The men could face eight years in jail if convicted
Colombian prosecutors have formally charged three suspected Irish Republican Army members with teaching bomb-making to Marxist rebels, bringing the men's trial a significant step closer.

Prosecutors passed the case to a federal judge on Friday, six months after the three men were arrested while leaving an area controlled by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

They are innocent - they did none of what prosecutors are saying

Agustin Jimenez
Defence lawyer

The three, Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, face up to eight years in jail if convicted.

They have denied the allegations, and took space in a newspaper last week to say they had been framed as part of attempts to damage peace talks between the government and rebels.

Under Colombian law, the three men have the right to appeal against the prosecutor's charges. The judge decides if the case should go forward, and if so sets a trial date.

Agustin Jimenez, president of a local lawyers' group representing two of the three men, said they would appeal.

"They are innocent. They did none of what prosecutors are saying," he told Reuters news agency.

According to the prosecutor's report, witnesses have testified that they saw the three men in the Switzerland-sized zone in southern Colombia controlled by the FARC.

Technical evidence revealed traces of explosives on their clothes, the report said.

'Pipe bombs'

According to a supposed defector from the FARC ranks, the three men had also been seen teaching rebels to build pipe bombs and work with dynamite.

The three men, two of whom are from the Republic of Ireland and one from Northern Ireland, were arrested at Bogota airport last August, travelling on false passports.

They claimed they had been in the FARC area to see wildlife and learn about the rebel groups peace talks with the Colombian Government.

The men's arrest undermined the FARC's claim that it was interested in peace.

They also proved an embarrassment for the IRA, even though the three denied being members of the illegal organisation.

Sinn Fein - the political wing of the IRA - has acknowledged that Mr Monaghan once sat on the party's executive committee.

The BBC's Bob Berry
"Prosecutors claim the three were members of the IRA"
See also:

23 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Colombian 'IRA' witness disappears
22 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
SF link to Colombia arrest man
23 Aug 01 | Americas
US warning on IRA suspects
22 Aug 01 | Americas
'IRA' men in notorious prison
17 Aug 01 | Northern Ireland
Who are IRA suspects?
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