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Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 17:41 GMT
Dissident threat to peace
bomb damage
The Omagh bomb had a devastating impact
BBC NI's chief security correspondent Brian Rowan reports on the upsurge of activity by dissident factions and the threat they pose.

It is at times of trouble in the Northern Ireland peace process that those dissident republican groups who oppose the Good Friday Agreement and the Sinn Fein peace strategy are usually seen at their most active.

That pattern of activity has been repeated in recent weeks, just before and then immediately after the suspension of the political institutions.

The Continuity IRA, the only republican organisation not on ceasefire, admitted being behind the bomb attack at a hotel in County Fermanagh in early February, but denied any involvement in more recent incidents at two security bases in Northern Ireland.

That led to suspicion that the so-called Real IRA, the organisation behind the Omagh bomb in August 1998, had renewed its activity.

Security operation

After Wednesday's discovery of 500lbs pounds of home-made explosives, more questions are being asked about the ceasefire that group is supposed to be observing.

The explosives were not primed but it is believed there was a plan to use them soon in an attack against the security forces - an attack thwarted, it seems, by a security operation driven by intelligence information and involving surveillance.

Three men from Belfast are being questioned by detectives.

Security chiefs on both sides of the Irish border have issued repeated warnings that dissident republicans continue to pose a serious threat.

Of the dissident groups on the republican side, the Real IRA is believed to be the more dangerous.

Terrorist threat

The group grew out of an internal row in the main IRA organisation, and has within its ranks experienced bomb makers - terrorists who once held positions in the IRA's so-called "engineering department".

The IRA's former "quartermaster general" is believed to be the leader of the dissident faction.

Despite the continuing terrorist threat, the security forces announced on Thursday that there was to be a further reduction in troop levels in Northern Ireland.

A battalion based in Belfast, where there has been very little military patrolling in recent years, will not be replaced when it returns to Britain at the beginning of next month.

It means that, for the first time since troops were deployed in the province in 1969, there are none specifically earmarked for the city.

The number of soldiers serving in Northern Ireland will drop below 14,000, with an additional 2,000 on standby in Britain if they are required by the RUC chief constable and the Army chief in the province.

With the political process once more in limbo, there has been increased terrorist activity in recent weeks.

IRA guns, which had been silent while the new Northern Ireland Executive was functioning, are again being used in so-called "punishment" attacks.

The IRA is no longer involved in talks with the International Decommissioning Commission and there seems little prospect of any move to deal with the issue of weapons in the near future.

When you add to this the re-emergence of the dissident factions, a pretty gloomy picture begins to take shape.

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See also:

13 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Omagh bombers 'may never be tried'
07 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Omagh bomb accused refused legal aid
15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Plea to PM over bomb atrocity
16 Aug 98 | Latest News
Who are the 'Real IRA?'
18 Mar 99 | Focus
Omagh bomb claims 29th victim
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