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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
IRA suspects on foreign land
Three Irishmen await trial in Colombia
Three Irishmen await trial in Colombia

The teeming Latin American capital of Bogota is the last place on earth you would expect three Irishmen to appear in court accused of being IRA members who were training left-wing rebels.

In a unique hearing on Friday, the three men were scheduled to go before a judge for the first time since their arrest in Colombia in August of last year.

But in surprise move the three refused to leave their cells when their armed escort arrived and the hearing was postponed until later in the month.

In court on Friday the prosecution outlined the case against the three men.

Martin McCauley from Lurgan in County Armagh, James Monaghan from County Donegal and Niall Connolly from Dublin were detained at Bogota's El Dorado airport as they were about to board a flight out of the country.

They were found to have false passports and the Colombian security services accused them of having been to Farclandia - an area controlled by the left wing rebels, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

FARC rebel
FARC rebels are targeting urban areas
The charge against them is that they were members of the IRA returning home after teaching the rebels the techniques of urban terrorism.

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

Their arrests made world headlines and sent a shock wave through the corridors of power in Washington.

The US had been ploughing millions of dollars in military aid into Colombia to back up the government's ongoing war against the drugs barons.

Narco-terrorism is the tag given to those groups who control and protect the remote jungle areas where the cocaine is manufactured.

The FARC is "numero uno" on the narco-terrorist list. For their trouble, it is estimated the FARC rakes in about $600m a year.

This enables the group to be one of the best equipped terror organisations in the world.

Lorry FARC fired mortars from
FARC have used weapons similar to the IRA
Their campaign had been centred mainly in the countryside. But the FARC commanders want to take the fight to urban areas and the streets of Colombia's main cities.

The prosecutors allege this is where the IRA comes in.

Military commanders claim up to 15 Irish republicans have been to Colombia to help to train the rebels in the use of improvised urban weaponry such as mortar bombs and car bombs.

For its part, the IRA issued a statement saying its "army council sent no-one to Colombia to train or engage in any military co-operation with any group".

Safety concerns

The three suspects have been held in a number of custody centres over the past 13 months.

Concerns for their safety while in jails housing right wing paramilitary prisoners were raised with the authorities and they are currently behind bars in La Picota prison.

It sits on the southernmost limits of Bogota, sandwiched between a military base, a school and breeze block homes for displaced people.

When the three men face their accusers for the first time in a court of law, a legal process will begin which is likely to last several months.

Already, the defence lawyers have been highlighting what they say is "a violation of their rights" after statements made by both Colombian and US politicians.

In the wake of 11 September, the American crackdown on world terrorism put the three IRA suspects right in the spotlight.

The Prosecutor General, Luis Osorio, has stated confidently that "there is sufficient evidence to put them on trial".

The defence lawyers stress that their clients have already been condemned guilty even before the trial gets under way.

In a news conference in Bogota on Thursday, they said the men were being used as "guinea pigs in a political experiment".

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See also:

12 Aug 02 | N Ireland
08 Aug 02 | Americas
07 May 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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