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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Terror trainers or eco-tourists?
FARC rebels training in Colombia
FARC rebels: The world's richest Marxists
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By Fergal Keane
BBC Correspondent in Colombia
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I slept next to the brothel.

The music and shrieks from that sad bordello drifted in the window until long past dawn, while I turned and sweated in the muggy swamp of my bed, the main attraction for squadrons of mosquitoes.

But I had some consolation. I was not the most uncomfortable Irishman in Colombia that night.


The notion of convicted terrorists James Monaghan and Martin McCauley chasing butterflies in the jungle is charming - but am I alone in wondering if it is true?

Far away in a high-security prison, three Irish Republican prisoners were enduring another night of captivity.

They are suspected to have trained the Colombian extreme left-wing FARC rebel group in terrorism techniques.

This week, a congressional report released in Washington alleged that links exist between the FARC and the Irish Republican Army - the IRA quickly denied that any of its operatives had been sent to Colombia to carry out training.

Safe haven

I was, in fact, following a path those same Irishmen had blazed some months before.

For all I knew, they may even have stayed in the same hotel in San Vicente, the town in the Colombian jungle which until recently was the capital of the guerrilla safe haven.

Under a unique arrangement, the government had allowed the Marxist guerrillas of FARC to control a vast swath of territory, on condition that they were good chaps, and talked about a ceasefire.

They did talk, and talk.

Alas, they also kidnapped and killed, and continued to raise millions from taxing the cocaine which flourishes in the jungles of Colombia.

The FARC are the world's richest Marxists. The US government believes they earn as much as US$300m a year from the drugs trade.

Guerrilla needlework

The following morning, I set out for the big FARC base in the hills outside San Vicente.

Irishmen arrested in Colombia, from left: David Bracken, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley
The inquiry was launched after the arrest of three alleged terrorist trainers
One of the group's leaders had agreed to an interview, news delivered to me by a bearded, motorbike-riding revolutionary with whom I dined the night before.

The guerrilla camp was a muddle. The commandant would be with us in a few minutes, a young guerrilla guard had announced - we should be patient.

The teenage fighter was polite, but she was preoccupied.

We had interrupted her morning needlework session. She had been busy stitching a holster for her pistol.

It was a scene of extraordinary incongruity. The Women's Institute meets Che Guevara.

Cautious response

Commandant Raoul Rais turned out to be a very dreary man - plump, and dressed in immaculate fatigues, he sat with an armalite in his lap throughout the interview.


They came here for one reason only - to share political views

Commandant Raoul Rais
The FARC is the people, so any American threat to us is a threat to the people, he droned.

But the commandant was very cautious when I brought up the question of the three detained Irishmen.

They came here for one reason only, to share political views.

They wanted to study the peace process in Colombia, and to share with us about the peace process in Ireland. And that was that.

The US State Department, though, believes otherwise.

One of its officials told congress it was his information that the three had traces of explosives on their clothes.

They had also been travelling on false passports. And the FARC had of late been using bombing tactics familiar to anybody who had studied the IRA in Northern Ireland.

The White House seems disinclined to accept that the men were on a mission of peace.

Rather, it believes they were training a group which has threatened American lives, and which is now a target of the war on terror.

Eco-tourists?

Why would three Irish Republicans go to one of the most dangerous countries on earth, travelling on false passports, into the stronghold of a guerrilla group notorious for kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder?

It is a question the three defendants will attempt to answer at their trial in Colombia, but one which has caused untold embarrassment for Sinn Fein, and considerable anger for the White House.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams
The arrests have caused embarrassment for Sinn Fein
There may indeed be a simple explanation.

They might have been there as eco-tourists, the first explanation offered, or to study the Colombian peace process - the subsequent explanation.

The notion of convicted terrorists James Monaghan and Martin McCauley chasing butterflies in the jungle or listening to the warbling of parrots is charming. But am I alone in wondering if it is true?

For all that, I doubt that Mr Bush will want action against Sinn Fein that might in turn precipitate a crisis in the Irish peace process.

There is, it needs to be said, no proof that the party, or indeed, the IRA, sent the men to Colombia.

Big American stick

And with the Middle East in flames, the last thing the White House needs is trouble in a place where the US has gained so much credit for its peacemaking role.

There already have been some very tough words in private, but my guess is it will not go much further than that.

As far as the commandant and his comrades are concerned, stand by not for words, but for a very big American stick.

In George W Bush's world of friends and enemies, the commandant knows exactly where he stands.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Fergal Keane
"Far away in a high-security prison, three Irish Republican prisoners were enduring another night of captivity."
See also:

24 Apr 02 | Americas
Congress hears damning IRA report
24 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
IRA denies Colombia terror links
24 Apr 02 | Americas
Q&A: US involvement in Colombia
27 Feb 02 | Americas
Bush denies Colombia military aid
23 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein chief snubs US Congress
23 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Why Adams didn't go to Washington
16 Feb 02 | Americas
'IRA three' charged by Colombians
02 Dec 99 | Europe
ETA's bloody record
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