Sinn Fein denies Republican link to police break-in

Police in Northern Ireland searched houses in a republican district of west Belfast yesterday in connection with last month's raid on Special Branch premises in the city.

Detectives continued to question a man last night about the raid. Five others arrested earlier over the weekend, two of them women, were released. Yesterday's searches were concentrated in the Poleglass area of the city.

The police activity drew protests from Sinn Fein, which claimed republicans were not involved in the break-in, during which sensitive documents were stolen from a supposedly secure office within a heavily fortified police base.

The incident remains one of the most mystifying in recent years, since those involved displayed both great daring and a detailed knowledge of Special Branch premises.

In the days after the raid at Castlereagh almost everyone concluded that it had been an intelligence operation by elements of the army, police officers or MI5. This belief was voiced by the former chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan. Sir Ronnie, who stepped down at the weekend, described the incident as an inside job.

The surge of police activity directed at republicans has therefore been unexpected, implying as it does that the IRA could have pulled off the break-in. Those arrested included Bobby Storey, an IRA ex-prisoner who was once involved in complex IRA intelligence-gathering operations.

While neither the Government nor the police have openly accused the IRA of responsibility, police activity on such a scale clearly conveys the message that republicans are the prime suspects.

Sinn Fein flatly denies any such involvement. Gerry Adams, the party president, accused the Government of dirty tricks, declaring that republicans would not take the blame. Mr Adams said: "Let's make it clear to John Reid [Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] and anyone else who's listening. Republicans will not be scapegoated and will not accept responsibility for the working out of the British agenda."

Police are also looking for loyalist thugs who posed as Glasgow Celtic supporters in a series of attacks in north Belfast.

As bitterly contested parades were taking place in the city, a 17-year-old youth was stabbed three times in the head after being confronted by a Protestant gang in an area plagued by sectarian strife.

He was approached and asked his religion by four youths, one of them dressed in Celtic Football Club's green and white colours.

The victim, who is believed to be a Protestant, replied that he was a Catholic in an attempt to escape unscathed. He fled, but stumbled and was stabbed and beaten.

Earlier a woman was stopped in her car by three youths, the ringleader again wearing a Celtic top. She was questioned before he smashed the car's windows and began beating her. She escaped before her attackers stole the vehicle.

Police sources said members of the Ulster Young Militants, the youth wing of the Ulster Defence Association, regularly disguised themselves in the Catholic club's colours.

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