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Sinn Fein head visits US as pressure rises over Belfast killing

BELFAST -- Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams went to the United States yesterday in search of foreign support, but back home in Northern Ireland a controversy over the IRA's killing of a Catholic man refused to go away.

Sinn Fein, reeling from accusations that its members helped destroy evidence and intimidate witnesses, acknowledged that a party election candidate had been present in the bar where Irish Republican Army members attacked Robert McCartney.

Adams left Northern Ireland before the latest development. In his weeklong trip to the United States, he said, he would emphasize that ''the peace process has to be put together again" and would laud Irish-American backers who have ''remained with this process through thick and through thin."

Sinn Fein initially objected to police efforts to identify McCartney's killers, while the outlawed IRA denied any involvement. Both wings of the Irish republican movement have had to change their position drastically because of a campaign by McCartney's five sisters, who will be guests of the White House on St. Patrick's Day.

In response to the sisters' highlighting of witness intimidation and IRA involvement, the underground group has expelled three members, while Sinn Fein has suspended seven. Adams also has told witnesses to offer statements to a police official handling complaints, but not directly to the detectives investigating the killing.

The IRA caused widespread outrage when it revealed Tuesday it was willing to kill four people allegedly involved in the attack.

Now, in the latest twist in this unprecedented confrontation between Sinn Fein and its own working-class Catholic grass roots, a young Sinn Fein candidate in Northern Ireland's most recent elections confirmed she had been inside the pub where McCartney was attacked.

Cora Groogan, 23 -- who ran unsuccessfully in the 2003 elections for Northern Ireland's legislature alongside Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness -- said she had provided a statement to her own lawyer about what she had seen but wouldn't talk to police about it. ''I got to the bar about 10 p.m. that Sunday. I was there for a short while," she said. ''There was a commotion in the bar but I witnessed nothing and left shortly after 11 p.m."

Police and witnesses say McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine were attacked between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. inside the bar, allegedly after a senior IRA figure was offended by something one of them had said and threatened, ''Do you know who I am?"

Witnesses, speaking to journalists and the McCartney family, have described seeing the IRA figure order henchmen to slash Devine across the neck with a broken bottle, then pursue both McCartney and Devine outside, where the 33-year-old McCartney was clubbed with iron rods and had his throat and stomach cut open with a knife. He died hours later -- after IRA figures allegedly ordered about 70 people inside the bar not to talk to police, nor to phone for an ambulance.

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