Royal Ulster Constabulary officers yesterday broke up concrete steps at Glencolin Way, an area of open ground close to houses in the republican west Belfast district. This followed an investigation of the area on Saturday, when police used devices similar to mine-detectors to scan the ground.
According to one unconfirmed report, the search followed a telephone tip-off to a relatives' group, which may have come from the IRA.
The development has raised hopes of progress in finding the bodies of more than a dozen people missing since the Seventies, who have come to be known as "the disappeared".
The present operation is a search for the bodies of Brian McKinney, 22, and John McClory, 18, who vanished in west Belfast in 1978. They are assumed to have been killed and buried by the IRA.
McKinney's mother, Margaret, said: "The search gives me some hope and I prefer this to nothing - at least something is being done. But I am wary of being too hopeful. I have been left shattered too many times in the past.
"I do feel that Brian is buried somewhere in that area and I hope that this search will bring results. I just want his body to be found. I want to be like every other mother of victims of the Troubles, to have a grave that I can visit and tend."
Many families of the disappeared have been involved in a four-year campaign, pressing the IRA to reveal where their relatives are buried, but progress has been slow.
The IRA recently admitted that the burials had caused "incalculable anguish to their families" but claimed that pinpointing the graves was extremely difficult because of changes in IRA leadership, the deaths of some of its members and the passage of time.
More than 170 paramilitary prisoners, both loyalist and republican, will be released from prison this week for the annual 10 days' home leave. With more than 200 already freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, this means that fewer than 100 inmates will remain behind bars at Christmas.Reuse content