Irish republicans cleared of training Colombian rebels

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Three Irish republicans accused of training Farc rebels in the jungles of Colombia were yesterday acquitted of the charge and are expected to be sent back to Ireland shortly.

The three, who were arrested amid huge international publicity in August 2001, were given sentences of up to 44 months after being convicted of travelling on false passports.

But having been in custody for almost three years, they are expected to be deported from Colombia after paying fines of about $5,000 (£2,800) each. Their trial ended last year but the judge took eight months to reach his verdict, which was delivered yesterday in a brief statement.

The three, Jim Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley, were arrested while leaving Colombia in an incident which led to accusations that the IRA was co-operating with Farc narco-terrorists. All three are republicans but deny they have IRA connections. Monaghan received a 44-month sentence, McCauley received 36 months and Connolly 26 months. The three men stayed away from the court for most of its hearings, saying they feared for their safety, but attended to protest their innocence.

Their arrests contributed to a political crisis in Belfast, with Unionist parties and others saying they undermined faith in the republican commitment to the peace process. The IRA later said there had been "a lot of ill-founded and mischievous speculation" about the arrests, criticising "ill-considered and aggressive comment directed at our organisation". It said no one had been sent to Colombia to train or engage in any military co-operation with any group.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, said yesterday: "This is welcome news. The last three years have been very difficult for the men and their families. They have been pilloried in the media, their case subject to huge prejudicial commentary and the men's lives have been in constant danger. And this case has been used to try to destabilise the Irish peace process."

In marked contrast, Ian Paisley Jnr of the Democratic Unionist Party declared: "There are still questions which Sinn Fein-IRA must answer ,such as the extent of their links to worldwide terrorist groupings."

Sir Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist Party agreed, saying: "Huge question marks remain as to why the three men involved were travelling with false documents. If their reason for being in Colombia was benign then why travel with false passports and ID documents?"

Since the arrests, Irish republicans have run an energetic campaign in support of "the Colombia Three", proclaiming their innocence.

The US administration was particularly scandalised by the Colombian arrests. Washington made it clear that republicans were on their last warning, and that any more sinister foreign adventures would lead to severe penalties. Since the arrests, there have been been signs of IRA activity in Northern Ireland but no major signs that the organisation is active in illegal activities abroad.

An international report published last week by the Independent Monitoring Commission accused the IRA of being involved in violence, including "punishment" attacks. It said the organisation was still training but made no mention of attempts to acquire weapons outside Ireland.