Republicans on run from Colombia arrive in Ireland

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The Independent Online

Three Irish republicans facing lengthy jail sentences for terrorist offences in Colombia unexpectedly turned up in the Irish Republic yesterday after spending eight months on the run.

They appeared without warning, making contact with an Irish radio station to say that they had been in the country for several days and hoped the Irish government would allow them to remain. The news sparked instant speculation that their return, just days after the IRA announcement that it was desisting from illegal activity, had formed part of a deal that has already seen significant demilitarisation.

But the Irish government was last night quick to say that the issue of the return of the three men had formed no part of its discussions with Sinn Fein, and that no commitments concerning them had been made to republicans.

The Colombian government indicated last night that it regarded the three as fugitives from justice, and that warrants for their arrest had been issued through Interpol. The legal fate of the men is uncertain, given that the issues of extradition and deportation are regarded as something of a quagmire, with proceedings sometimes taking years to reach an often unpredictable conclusion.

The Northern Ireland Office warned last night, however, that if any of the three crossed the border into Northern Ireland they would face extradition to Colombia.

The re-surfacing of the men - Martin McAuley, Niall Connolly and Jim Monaghan - is the latest twist in a tortuous saga which began in 2001 when they were arrested while leaving Colombia after visiting Farc rebels. After several years in custody, they were given short sentences after being acquitted of the major charge against them, that of training the Farc rebels.

The three were given sentences of up to 44 months after being convicted of travelling on false passports. Having spent almost three years in custody they were expected to be deported after paying fines.

But in December of last year, following an appeal lodged by the Colombian authorities, a court reversed their acquittals and sentenced each to 17 years in jail. At that point they skipped bail and have whereabouts have been a mystery.

One, Jim Monaghan, told RTE radio yesterday that no deal had been done with either the British or Irish governments for their return, that he did not consider himself to be on the run, and that he would not be hiding from Irish police.

He would not detail how they reached Ireland, saying they had received "a lot of help from a lot of people" whom he would not endanger. He said the Irish government would be "very remiss" to send anyone back to a country like Colombia.

He denied that the three had gone to Colombia to train Farc rebels, saying they had gone there "in good faith to learn about the peace process there". He welcomed the recent IRA moves but acknowledged that the United States would not be happy with the reappearance of the three men in Ireland.