Page last updated at 04:34 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'The SAS broke the rules of war'

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Peter Ryan, an IRA man ambushed and killed by the SAS, was one of more than 3,600 people killed during the Troubles. On Wednesday the Eames Bradley Report was published, including plans for dealing with the legacy of these deaths.

The family of Peter Ryan
The family of Peter Ryan believe he was "executed" by British soldiers

In the 1980s and early 1990s the British army and the RUC were accused of operating a "shoot-to-kill" policy in Northern Ireland.

Peter Ryan was one of three IRA men killed by the SAS in an ambush in the village of Coagh in County Tyrone in 1991.

His family say they do not have a problem with the "shoot-to-kill" policy, but they believe the security forces went further and committed a war crime by executing the injured men in cold blood and setting their car on fire.

Mr Ryan's cousin, Tarlac Connolly, says: "Our concern is not that it was a shoot-to-kill. They were involved in a war situation and that was the consequences of war. Soldiers do what soldiers do.

"Our concern is that our relatives were dragged off the road wounded after this incident, and burned and that breaks the Geneva Convention and is a war crime. We want the person who took that decision to face a war crimes tribunal in The Hague."

He says they have seen a crime-scene report showing the bullets fired and the position of the bodies, which suggests the three IRA men were "executed".

Mr Connolly says: "The order was taken at a war table in London, or [Army headquarters in] Lisburn. It was an act of war, but it was an act of war which broke the rules of war."

Mr Ryan's brother, Sean, says a balaclava belonging to the men was found some distance from the car, which supports their assertion that at least two of the IRA men got out of the vehicle, were shot and then placed back in the car before it caught fire.

'No survivors'

Four years earlier eight IRA men were mown down by SAS bullets when they tried to launch an attack on a police station in Loughgall, County Armagh.

Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan, who had a wife and children, was gunned down by the SAS

Mr Ryan says: "There were a number of ambushes like that where all the IRA men died. Nobody was going to come out of there alive. It was a very direct policy. There were to be no survivors."

He says they believe the ambush operation was launched after a tip-off, presumably from a "tout" or informer within the IRA.

According to reports at the time the three IRA men were on their way to kill an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier, who lived in Coagh, when they were ambushed at about 0730 BST.

The car was said to have caught fire after being struck by about 200 bullets and locals said the gunfire had continued for 10 minutes.

The families of the three men do not believe the official version and are suspicious that an inquest has never been held.

It is one of 29 "legacy inquests" that are still awaiting a full hearing before a coroner.

Henry McNally, whose brother Laurence was also killed at Coagh, says: "I would like to see an inquest. This happened in 1991 and we are still waiting."

Henry McNally
Henry McNally believes his brother Laurence was "executed"

He too believes his brother was murdered but he also thinks the truth will never emerge.

"I don't think it will. Why should I trust the British government? Them fellas were out on a mission. They were shot down on the street and they were then burned," he says.

Mr McNally adds: "Of course it's time to move on, but I would like to know what happened. Before Sinn Fein went into government this should have been done."

The IRA said at the time the trio had been on "active service" but had been killed in revenge for the death of three UDR soldiers at Glenanne a few days earlier.

The local Democratic Unionist MP Reverend William McCrea said after the shooting: "They have fallen into the pit that they planned for others and justice has now been done."

'No rotten apples'

But Mr Connolly says: "We want to hold the person responsible accountable. We don't think it was crazy SAS men or a few rotten apples. We think a decision was taken at a high level to finish them off. We want to take that person [who made that decision] to The Hague for war crimes."

The aftermath of the Loughgall massacre
Four years earlier eight IRA men were killed by the SAS in another ambush at Loughgall

The families of Peter Ryan and Laurence McNally are suspicious of the Eames Bradley Report.

Mr Connolly says: "We are in a dispute with the British government and they appointed Eames and Bradley so they are not independent, as far as we see it. We'd rather see an investigation by an international, independent body."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "All deaths in Northern Ireland were fully investigated by police with fullest co-operation of the MoD [Ministry of Defence] and the armed forces. The Police Service of Northern Ireland's Historical Enquiries Team, which is re-examining a number of cases, again operates with full co-operation from the MoD."

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