Police find third weapons haul in crackdown on dissident violence

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The Independent Online

Security forces in Northern Ireland made their third recent significant arms find at the weekend as they stepped up operations intended to halt a surge in activity by dissident republican groups. The Police Service warned, however, that splinter groups continue to carry out surveillance on its officers with the intention of killing them.

Three men have been charged with terrorist offences after the seizure of guns and ammunition. The suspects, aged 34, 35 and 39, were arrested on Friday after police stopped a vehicle in south Armagh, close to the Irish border. A significant amount of guns and ammunition was found inside the vehicle, and in subsequent searches elsewhere in south Armagh over the weekend.

Officers have charged the men with possession of firearms with intent to endanger life, preparing to commit an act of terrorism and possession of items likely to be of use to terrorists.

A high state of alert is being maintained, with increased roadblocks, searches and arrests, particularly in border areas. Easter is the most revered date in the republican calendar, and the suspicion is that dissidents have ambitions to mark it in a violent fashion.

The Queen is due to visit Dublin next month, while the campaign is already under way for elections to the Belfast Assembly on 5 May. The dissidents are assumed to be hopeful of extracting publicity through their reaction to these events.

Activities of the violent breakaway groups have not diminished in the wake of the recent killing of police constable Ronan Kerr in County Tyrone and an abortive attempt to deliver a large van bomb to an unknown target.

But the security forces have had their successes, making a large-scale arms find near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, in the wake of the constable's murder. A man has appeared in court charged with possessing explosives, firearms and articles likely to be of use to terrorists.

At the weekend two caches of terrorist material were uncovered in border areas, with three men arrested following co-ordinated police activity both north and south. Material recovered included a substantial number of machine guns, rifles and handguns, together with ammunition.

Explaining the extra security activity, a police spokesman in Belfast said: "We are taking these steps to keep communities and officers safe. We would not do this unless it was not absolutely necessary to protect life."