Colombia's most senior general said yesterday that in recent years at least seven individuals with links to the IRA had been in the country helping to train members of the Farc terrorist group, including the three arrested in August last year and awaiting trial.
General Fernando Tapias, chairman of Colombia's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a US congressional committee in Washington that the alleged IRA men had helped Farc with sophisticated new explosive techniques and the production of "non-conventional" arms and other weapons "to wage guerrilla warfare".
General Tapias, testifying to the House International Relations Committee, said he did not know whether the seven had been in Farc strongholds in southern Colombia as representatives of the IRA or in their "personal capacity". But he insisted "we have facts linking these people to training procedures, buttressing the terrorist activities of Farc".
The IRA's leadership denied sending men to train or engage with any group in Colombia, echoing a similar denial by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein chairman, who refused an invitation to testify at the hearing.
The three under arrest are Niall Connolly, who Mr Adams admitted last year had been Sinn Fein's representative in Cuba, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley. General Tapias said Mr Monaghan and Mr McCauley were the head and deputy head of what he described as the IRA's "engineering" division, in charge of explosives.
Two others were identified in a dossier compiled by the Colombian armed forces under the aliases of John Francis Johnston and James Edward Walker, who were said to have visited territory controlled by Farc in April last year, returning later that month to Paris. The other two suspects, who according to the dossier were captured but released for lack of evidence, were named as Margret Osk Steindordsdottir and Kawin Neol Creenle.
The hearing in Washington yesterday came after the publication of a summary of a report on the House committee's nine-month investigation into links between Farc, the largest terrorist organisation in the Western hemisphere, and the IRA. The report asserted that the IRA operated as part of an international terrorist scheme to train Farc guerrillas, working with Iranians, Cubans and possibly Basque separatists. They were paid out of revenue from Colombia's drugs trade.
Colombia, the report said, was a potential breeding area for international terrorism "equalled perhaps only by Afghanistan". It speculated that between five and 15 people suspected of links to the IRA had been in Colombia since 1998. The report suggested that the IRA had helped to make Farc more proficient with explosives. Mark Wong, a senior State Department counter-terrorism official who also testified yesterday, said the Colombian group was using secondary explosive devices, "known to be a signature IRA terror tactic, but which previously hadn't been part of the Farc arsenal".
Congressmen sympathetic to Irish republicanism have furiously attacked both the report and the fact that the hearing was held at all. The Northern Ireland peace process would be damaged at a delicate stage, they said. The report, they said, was mere speculation and surmise, which could prejudice the trial of the three suspected IRA members. This is likely to start in a few weeks, General Tapias indicated.
To hold the hearing was "irresponsible", the New York Republican Peter King said. There was no credible evidence suggesting that the IRA high command had sanctioned their alleged activities. "This is a hearing that's gone awry, with a pre-ordained agenda," he said – a reference to pressure from the Bush administration for authority to dispatch US military aid as well as financial assistance to help Colombia's fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
Henry Hyde, the committee chairman, said the evidence pointed to an IRA presence in Colombia of at least three years. To claim the three facing trial were there "for eco-tourism or activities relating to the Irish and Colombian peace processes" were "an insult to our intelligence", Mr Hyde declared.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies