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Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK
IRA 'tested weapons' in Colombia

Senior IRA leaders were aware that members of the organisation were using Colombia as a testing ground for new weapons, security sources in Northern Ireland have told the BBC.

The security assessment comes as the authorities in Colombia prepare to try three Irishmen accused of training Marxist guerrillas in explosives and urban terrorism after being arrested in 2001.

IRA leaders have denied authorising any action in the south American country, but unionist politicians say the latest security assessment points to a clear breach of the IRA's ceasefire.

David Trimble:
David Trimble: "This is no surprise"
The allegations over Colombia, and a security breach at Belfast's police headquarters linked to the republican group, have raised questions about the IRA's backing for the fragile Northern Ireland political process.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said it was "no surprise".

"The position on Colombia is as anticipated, that this is a matter that had been authorised by the republican movement.

"It is for that reason that we have been pressing the goverment to make it absolutely clear to all paramilitaries that we are not just content with a ceasefire on their terms.

"What is clearly implied in the Agreement must come and that is a complete cessation of all paramilitary operations and indeed the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations."

'Leadership sanction'

Hardline Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would now have to consider what it would do following the revelations.

He said there was now substantial evidence that the alleged operation had the sanction of the IRA leadership.

"We have to make it clear to the government that either they exclude Sinn Fein from the executive - because I do not believe that Sinn Fein are fit to be in that executive - you cannot have ministers making law and their terrorist surrogates breaking the law on the streets."

Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine said the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force had breached its ceasefire.

Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly said they were "unfounded allegations".

"They all come from the same anonymous British source who has been briefing journalists for almost a year now."

He said the same was true of the IRA and expressed exasperation with the government for "refusing to admit the truth".

On Thursday, the IRA repeated its denial that the leadership had sent anyone to Colombia to train or to engage in military co-operation with any group.

A spokesman said the group firmly rejected "unsubstantiated allegations" about IRA activity in Colombia which he said had come from "unnamed securocrats who had continually sought to undermine the peace process".

But a security assessment given to the BBC suggests something entirely different.

Rockets

It says the IRA had been using Colombia as a training ground to carry out tests with its "engineering department" - the part of the organisation responsible for developing weaponry.

The assessment says the IRA had been exploring prototype devices, including rockets.

The assessment also deals with the issue of who in the IRA gave clearance for its south American involvement.

It says the IRA activities in Colombia were "definitely sanctioned at army council level" by the organisation's chief of staff Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and by Brian Keenan, who represents the group in talks with the international decommissioning body.

Security sources say he and a west Belfast republican, once labelled "Britain's most wanted woman", Evelyn Glenholmes, developed the link between the IRA and the left-wing Colombian guerilla organisation FARC.

Extradition proceedings against Glenholmes failed in the mid-1980s in the Irish Republic.

Two years ago the British Government's Northern Ireland Office confirmed that she was "no longer wanted by the prosecuting authorities".

Meanwhile, the trial of the three Irishmen held in Colombia has been delayed.

The authorities have said they cannot guarantee their safety in court.

The rebel group FARC have threatened prosecutors and other public officials in the province where the trial had been due to take place in July.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray
"Unionists say they have committed a breach of faith"
The BBC's Jon Devitt
"The latest information suggests that the three men were sanctioned to go to Columbia at the highest levels of the IRA"
Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson:
"I do not believe that Sinn Fein are fit to be in that executive"
BBC NI's Brian Rowan:
"Senior IRA leaders were aware that members of the organisation were using Colombia as a testing ground"

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22 Apr 02 | N Ireland
21 Apr 02 | N Ireland
19 Apr 02 | N Ireland
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