'IRA men learning to make bombs in Colombia'

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The Independent Online

Three suspected Provisional IRA terrorists arrested in Colombia were studying new bomb and rocket making techniques, security sources claimed yesterday.

Three suspected Provisional IRA terrorists arrested in Colombia were studying new bomb and rocket making techniques, security sources claimed yesterday.

The Irishmen were allegedly on a secret mission to investigate how the Latin American country's largest rural guerrilla force was developing homemade explosive devices, including mortars.

A senior security source in Belfast said: "They were there to explore the technologies of bomb making as opposed to arms and drugs dealing."

One of the three suspects has yet to be positively identified, but a link between the IRA and a terror group in Latin America – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – has been established for the first time, say security sources. The three men, who allegedly have experience in building mortars and other explosive devices, are also thought to have exchanged bomb making skills with the rebel army and may have been spotted by satellite experimenting with explosives in a rebel safe haven in southern Colombia.

One of the three men – all of whom were arrested in Bogota on Saturday – is a senior member of the republican movement. James Monaghan, who used a passport with the alias Edward J Campbell, is an expert in designing and manufacturing explosives for the IRA, and was twice imprisoned in Britain and the Irish Republic, once for 10 years. He received a three-year sentence in 1971 for unlawful damage, conspiracy and possession of explosives.

Mr Monaghan was named as the education officer on the IRA's Army Council and Brigade Staff earlier this year by the Democratic Unionist deputy leader, Peter Robinson.

Martin McCauley, 38, who used the alias John Joseph Kelly, is reportedly a mortar specialist. He was seriously injured in a police shooting in 1982 when a 17-year-old friend, Michael Tighe, was shot dead as RUC officers opened fire at a shed near Lurgan, Co Armagh, in what became known as the "shoot-to-kill" incident. Mr McCauley later received a five-figure sum in compensation. In February 1985, he was given a suspended sentence after being found guilty of possession of a firearm.

The third man remained unidentified yesterday but travelled under the name David Bracken. Mr Bracken is believed by Colombian military intelligence to be the most senior of the three, and had been active in neighbouring Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, intelligence sources said.

Colombian officials said forensic tests on the three, who were detained after spending five weeks with members of the rebel army, had shown traces of explosives and cocaine.

A security source in Belfast said: "We believe they were exchanging knowledge and experience in relation to armaments production, homemade rocket devices, explosive devices. That is where the IRA's real engineering skills lie at this moment in time – improving the production of grenades, mortar bombs and blockbuster-type devices. It allows them to produce and develop a really heavy arsenal as required.

"It is a question of two peers meeting, a mutual exchange of technologies. It is like: 'We do this in rural areas and we do that in urban areas. What do you do?'' the source said. "We are looking at a meeting of minds, a sort of information and technology exchange on home-produced devices. It means you do not have to shop around on the international scene for rocket launchers."

The security sources said last night the investigation could take several months to complete.

Mr Monaghan and Mr McCauley arrived in Colombia on 30 June from Belfast, after a Paris stopover. Mr Bracken flew from Dublin, via Madrid and spent a day in Caracas before making a rendezvous in Bogota. The men were able to spend five weeks in the rebel-held southern zone with immunity. But army operatives seized them when they touched down in Bogota on a commercial flight Saturday night.

The trio can be jailed for travelling on fake papers, and if found guilty of teaching Farc, face 20 years behind bars. The men testified to investigators in a closed session yesterday and charges against them will be filed by Saturday.

The rebel army appears to have more to gain from any exchange of information with the suspected IRA bomb making specialist. What worries Colombians most are the warning signs that Farc has been seeking expert pointers in urban terrorism and intends to bring its war right into the cities.