Omagh Bombing: Prisoners' release will still go ahead

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The Independent Online
THE EARLY release of terrorist prisoners will go ahead as part of the peace process, in spite of heightened fears of renewed violence in response to the Omagh massacre.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, returned to France yesterday to resume his holiday after a "harrowing" visit to see victims of the bomb blast in Belfast hospitals, but he left convinced that the peace process was stronger as a result of the decision by Sinn Fein leaders to condemn the outrage.

He told aides that he believed the change in the political climate in Northern Ireland had made the peace process stronger. He is determined to implement in full the deal signed on Good Friday, including prisoner releases, in spite of increased alarm from the victims' families, Ulster Unionists and Tory leaders.

Downing Street said the IRA prisoners who could be released within the next fortnight were not connected to the Real IRA group held responsible for the Omagh bombing.

"Nobody has got any illusions about what the IRA has done but the Prime Minister, rightly or wrongly, is taking the view that [Sinn Fein's president, Gerry] Adams and [Martin] McGuinness are serious about keeping to the path of peace rather than the path of violence. They are signatories to the peace process and that will be implemented in full," Mr Blair's spokesman said. "I don't think the Prime Minister doubts the sincerity of the Sinn Fein condemnation [of the bombing].

"I would emphasise these people who are responsible for this outrage have got nothing to do with the peace process, or the political process. They are outside it. They are crim-inal elements who are outside it... People have given their support for that [peace] agreement. What these people are trying to do is destroy the basis of that agreement."

Downing Street officials said the release of prisoners would depend on the recommendations of the Sentences Review Commission. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will have the power to stop the release of any who she believes may return to violence.

The former prime minister, John Major, said there had to be decommissioning of weap-ons by the IRA to keep the peace process on track.

Mr Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, were awaiting the recommendations of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Garda with clear signals that they were prepared to legislate if necessary to crack down on the criminals.