Fears of collusion raised by burglary at Special Branch

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A break-in at a sensitive Special Branch office deep inside the heavily guarded police complex at Castlereagh in Belfast has again embroiled the Northern Ireland intelligence community in scandal.

At least three men burst into the office, assaulted a detective constable, tied him up and taped his mouth, before making off with documents and a notebook at 10pm on Sunday.

There was immediate speculation that the raiders must have had inside help. Castlereagh is protected by armed officers and heavy gates and doors, many of them festooned with security cameras. The raiders clearly must have known how to get into the complex and how to escape.

The office, which is described as not easily found, is a contact point for those wishing to speak to the Special Branch. Its documentation is therefore regarded as of a most sensitive nature.

Even the most innocent explanation of the break-in represents an extraordinary breach of security, in which details of Special Branch informers or agents may have been stolen. This might well have placed lives in danger.

Many will find it hard to believe that it does not represent another intelligence scandal. The Special Branch has been the target of many allegations in recent years over incidents such as the killing by loyalists of Pat Finucane, a Belfast solicitor, in 1989. In recent months it was heavily criticised for its performance in the RUC investigation into the Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people in 1998. Police denied accusations that it operated as "a force within a force".

Castlereagh was, for most of the Troubles, the site of the RUC's primary interrogation centre but it is no longer used for this purpose.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Jim Rodgers, a Unionist, called for a full-scale investigation. "There's something rather strange about this break-in and I do not believe for one moment that either republican or loyalist paramilitaries were involved," he said. "It's someone who knows something about the workings of Castlereagh and the lay-out. The whole thing stinks to high heaven."

The Northern Ireland Policing Board said that it viewed the matter as a very serious incident and was being kept fully informed.