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Cabinet warned of IRA hit squads


Chief Political Correspondent

Intelligence and security officers have warned senior Cabinet ministers they will be targets for IRA assassination squads if the Northern Ireland ceasefire breaks down amid fresh fears for the peace process.

Protection on ministerial cars has been upgraded for some ministers who are believed to be on the IRA hit list. The cars, which have bullet-proof windows, have been fitted with sophisticated electronic sensing devices to alert the driver if a bomb has been attached to the underside.

MI5 and anti-terrorist officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary have warned the Government that the IRA will strike quickly at targets on the mainland, if the ceasefire breaks down. "They have been told it will get very nasty, if the ceasefire ends, and that the targets will be on the mainland," said one Government source.

US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the commission on decommissioning IRA arms, also expressed fears of a return to violence. He said an IRA splinter group could break the ceasefire and he also put renewed pressure on John Major to end the deadlock by calling all-party talks before the end of this month.

The secret security service warnings were publicly aired by Sir Hugh Annesley, the RUC Chief Constable, who said at the weekend that the bombing campaign would be directed at the mainland, if there is a return to violence. The security and intelligence forces have told ministers that the IRA has is active in Ireland and on the mainland, keeping a watch on possible targets, despite the ceasefire.

The ceasefire has allowed some security to be relaxed. John Major dodged through busy lanes of traffic in Whitehall last week when he went on foot to a Burns-night party at the Banqueting House, a few hundred yards from 10 Downing Street. He was accompanied by bodyguards wearing kilts.

Senator Mitchell said: "It seems clear that not all on the Republican side favour the ceasefire and the potential for some elements to take direct and violent action does remain.," he said on BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost.

Mr Mitchell, whose commission told the Government that the IRA would not decommission its arms before talks, said all sides should redouble their efforts for peace.

Asked whether the IRA would return to violence, he said: "I think there is a danger of a fracture within that organisation. I hope that is not the case. I do believe that the political parties that are closely associated with the paramilitary organisations on both sides, Republican and Loyalist, are committed to the process.

"That's why I believe it is important to draw them further into the democratic process by getting these negotiations going as soon as possible," Mr Mitchell said.

His warning came after the IRA denied responsibility for a gun attack during which 57 shots were fired at the home of a policeman in County Tyrone.

The IRA issued a coded message in Belfast condemning as "mischievous" claims that it was behind the attack.

The security remain optimistic that the peace will hold, but their fears underline the delicate balance in which the peace process is now held.