Amnesty to investigate Ulster terror

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AMNESTY International announced yesterday that it is to send a mission to Northern Ireland to investigate and monitor human rights issues, including the continuing "punishment" attacks.

Downing Street gave a cautious welcome to the initiative after talks between the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and Tony Blair at the Commons. Labour MPs and the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, Andrew Mackay, also lent their support.

Amnesty gave a different version of events, however, to the one provided by Mr Trimble. It stressed that its coverage would not be confined to the question of paramilitary beatings but would cover a wide range of issues that could cause government concern.

Earlier this week Mr Trimble announced that he had invited Amnesty International and another human rights group to Northern Ireland to report on the question of paramilitary beatings and shootings. Yesterday, after the announcement that a mission was planned, he said he was pleased the organisation had responded positively.

Amnesty International said, however, that it had written to Mr Trimble last July informing him of its intention to send a mission to cover a wide range of human rights concerns and asking to meet him. The Unionist leader had not replied to the letter, it said.

Mr Trimble's public invitation to Amnesty International was itself unusual in that Unionist politicians have often criticised human rights organisations, generally on the basis that they are over-critical of the security forces and of emergency legislation.

Amnesty International has concerned itself with many issues and individual cases in Northern Ireland, its annual reports often mentioning "punishment" attacks.

Meanwhile two more attacks took place in Northern Ireland, including a particularly serious incident in which a man in his 40s was struck with a sledgehammer and then shot in the stomach in an attack in the town of Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, which is regarded as one of Northern Ireland's quietest areas. A hospital spokesman described his condition as ill but stable. Police said he was lucky to be alive. In another incident, a 40- year-old man was shot in the foot in a Protestant area of east Belfast.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, met Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Dublin yesterday for talks aimed at moving the formation of the Ulster Assembly a step closer before the 10 March deadline.

Ms Mowlam said: "With a bit of determination, imagination, flexibility and just guts we'll get there. There is no complacency, we are all working flat out."

Mr Trimble is refusing to sit in the same executive as Sinn Fein leaders until the IRA begins decommissioning.

Mr Blair is believed to have urged Mr Trimble to make progress, and told MPs in the Commons that the Government would expect Sinn Fein to honour its part of the Good Friday Agreement on the decommissioning of arms.

The pressure to advance the peace process came as a new political row erupted over claims that alleged intimidation of witnesses may have led to IRA suspects being allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder. Senior Irish politicians expressed deep concern after four men on trial in Dublin since last month for killing Jerry McCabe, a police officer, in 1996 changed their pleas from not guilty of murder to guilty of manslaughter in an apparent plea bargain.

The four, the former Brixton escaper Pierse McCauley, 34, from Strabane, and Jeremiah Sheehy, 36, Kevin Walsh, 42, and Michael O'Neill, 46, all from Co Limerick, also pleaded guilty to two new charges of possession of firearms with intent to commit robbery, and malicious wounding of Garda McCabe's partner Garda Ben O'Sullivan. They will be sentenced today .

Mr Ahern denied the claims, saying the Director of Public Prosecutions "made the decision totally under his own domain". But he added: "I can understand that the public would have like to see the murder charge dealt with. I thought that was the way it was likely to go."