IRA suspects charged over bombs in Colombia

Sinn Fein's leadership was under pressure last night after three alleged IRA members were charged with bomb-making offences in Colombia.

In a further sign of rising tension in the province, loyalist paramilitaries claimed responsibility for two failed bomb attacks on republican targets.

The hardline Democratic Unionist Party seized on the formal charges laid against the three IRA suspects – Martin McCauley, Jim Monaghan and Niall Connolly – by announcing plans to try to expel Sinn Fein from Northern Ireland's power-sharing Assembly.

The three were charged with training rebels from the Marxist Farc guerrilla group to make bombs and other weapons. If convicted, they face 16-year prison sentences. The men, who may have to wait for eight months before going to court, have also been charged with travelling on false passports.

The DUP's deputy leader, Peter Robinson, said the party would seek a debate on expelling Sinn Fein at the "earliest possible opportunity".

Urging David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the nationalist SDLP to support its stance, he said: "The time to stop running away from this issue has come. They must protect democracy in Northern Ireland, change their position and support the exclusion of Sinn Fein/IRA."

Reg Empey, an Ulster Unionist minister in the executive, hinted that the party could support the move.

The Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, attacked what he said were attempts to keep alive the "non-story" of the arrests. He said the men had apparently accepted the charge of using false passports, but added: "None of the other allegations have stood up." Mr McLaughlin insisted that the charges would have "no impact on the peace process".

Meanwhile, the little-known Loyalist Action Force claimed responsibility for leaving a crude pipe bomb at the offices in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary evacuated around 40 buildings before the device was made safe by Army explosives experts. Mr McGuinness was away on holiday.

Later the Red Hand Defenders – which has been used as a cover name for both the Ulster Defence Association and the Loyalist Volunteer Force – admitted planting a booby-trap device under a former republican prisoner's van in Armagh. The Army defused it.

In a statement to a Belfast newsroom, the Red Hand Defenders warned: "Our campaign will increase."

These alerts, plus a third in Londonderry, where the Foyle Bridge was sealed off because of a bomb warning, came amid heightening fears of increased attacks by loyalist paramilitaries. Sinn Fein said the UDA's ceasefire was in tatters and that it was mounting a fresh campaign against Catholics.

Mr McLaughlin said the attacks were evidence that "loyalist gun and bomb attacks have started again" and accused the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, of "denying reality" by ruling that the UDA ceasefire was intact.

The attacks raise the political temperature as the province's main parties consider their responses to the Government's plans to overhaul policing in Northern Ireland. The SDLP has accepted the reform blueprint, while Sinn Fein has rejected it out of hand. The Ulster Unionists and the DUP have asked for more time to examine the plans.

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