New inquiry into Omagh as IRA drops arms offer

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Police in Belfast and Dublin launched a new inquiry today to bring to justice the bombers behind the Omagh atrocity, in which 29 were killed.

The move – on the third anniversary of the bombing – comes after Northern Ireland faced its bleakest day for months, when the IRA withdrew its latest offer to decommission its weapons arsenal.

The group's move sparked bitter recriminations between the province's deadlocked political leaders, and undermined lingering hopes that a formula could be reached to rescue the peace process. The gloom was further deepened by claims that three alleged IRA members arrested in Colombia were studying the latest bomb- making techniques.

The new drive to find the Real IRA killers behind the blast was announced in Omagh today. It will be seen as another attempt to tighten the screw on hardline republicans, seen by Unionists as the biggest stumbling block to reviving the Good Friday Agreement.

A spokesman for the Royal Ulster Constabulary said: "We are trying everything possible to bring the people responsible before the courts ... We know that there are bound to be people who do have information who maybe have not come forward yet. It could be a very small piece of information which closes the crucial gap."

Relatives of the victims have launched a legal action seeking compensation from alleged members of the splinter group behind the bombing.

Bereaved families will mark the anniversary with an interdenominational prayer service in the Garden of Remembrance, constructed near the scene of the explosion.

Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Adrian in the blast, said: "I think there is a quiet determination to make sure that things happen. We're going to keep pressure on both governments to stand by the commitments they made in the aftermath of Omagh."

One man is awaiting trial in the Republic of Ireland in connection with Omagh, charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and with membership of an illegal organisation.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who days ago claimed a deal on decommissioning was "tantalisingly close", reflected on the pessimism over the province's deteriorating political situation. He insisted that the Government would not be deflected from implementing the Good Friday Agreement.

But he added: "Withdrawing from an agreement which took two years to arrive at, only five days after republicans declared it as historic, can only play into the hands of those sceptics who have always doubted their intentions ... It will, I believe, together with today's news reports from Colombia, disappoint many people, not only here at home but in the international community."

In its statement, the IRA condemned the Unionists' rejection and the Government's decision to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly briefly to create space for further negotiations. "The conditions therefore do not exist for progressing our proposition. We are withdrawing our proposal," it said.

The IRA had made a confidential agreement with General John de Chastelain on how to put its weapons out of action. But the lack of details over timing or method failed to satisfy the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, whose resignation as First Minister precipitated the current crisis.