No extradition for 21 IRA escapers, says Mandelson

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The Independent Online

Extradition moves are being dropped against convicted terrorists likely to be freed under the Good Friday Agreement if they were returned to the UK, the government said last night.

Extradition moves are being dropped against convicted terrorists likely to be freed under the Good Friday Agreement if they were returned to the UK, the government said last night.

The decision is expected to benefit around 21 IRA escapees whose return had been sought mostly from the Irish Republic and the US.

The move got a cautious welcome by Sinn Fein, but was denounced by Unionist politicians, who also took exception to demilitarisations by security forces. These include the demolition of border checkpoints and closure of an interrogation centre.

The context of the extradition decision is that almost all paramilitary prisoners have been released under the Good Friday Agreement. The authorities believe anyone successfully extradited, after long and costly proceedings, could generally expect to be released under the Agreement after serving only a month or two.

The Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said: "It is clearly anomalous to pursue the extradition of people who appear to qualify for early release, and who would have little if any of their original prison sentence to serve. It is not an amnesty."

The Army plans to reduce its military bases from 64 to 20, and troop numbers from 13,500 to around 8,000, again drew a cautious welcome from republicans and nationalists but were criticised by Unionist politicians. UIster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis MP called lessening security presence when a threat still existed "idiotic and foolish".

Nigel Dodds, of the Democratic Unionists, said the moves were "amazing, astounding and staggering", adding: "They will bring succour to the IRA and raise concerns among most law-abiding decent people." But on another reading, the reductions were modest, since the six border checkpoints to be demolished have been unmanned for months. Another of the moves, closure of an Army base next to the Maze prison near Belfast, is due to the fact that the jail is about to close.

The Army has no plans to dismantle the string of watch-towers which provide a military presence along the South Armagh border. Military sources make it clear that the difficulties in that area arise not only from republican dissidents but from the mainstream IRA. Police operating in the area are usually accompanied by 12-man teams of soldiers.

The target of an 8,000-soldier presence depends on the arrival of "a normal peaceful society", said an Army spokesman, and assumes retention of the locally-recruited Royal Irish Regiment. An military source said: "We cannot give a definitive timeframe. It is measured in years and it is threat-driven."