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3 IRA-linked fugitives back in Ireland

Colombia says they aided rebels

DUBLIN -- Three men linked to the Irish Republican Army who were convicted of training rebels in Colombia have returned surreptitiously to Ireland, eight months after going on the run.

RTE, the Irish national broadcasters, carried an interview with one of the fugitives, Jim Monaghan. He said all three had returned to Ireland recently, ''and, as you can imagine, a lot of people in a lot of countries had to help us."

Monaghan would not provide details of how the three evaded the international arrest warrant facing them. He insisted he did not consider himself ''on the run" -- and hoped that Ireland would not extradite them to Colombia.

Monaghan, Niall Connolly, and Martin McCauley were arrested in August 2001 as they were trying to board a flight out of Colombia after spending about 18 months with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Colombia's major rebel group known by the acronym FARC.

The men were charged with training rebels to make and deploy IRA-style weaponry, including truck-mounted mortars. They initially were acquitted of all major charges, but were ordered to remain in Colombia pending the government's appeal to a higher court, which in December convicted and imposed 17-year prison sentences on the men. The three immediately disappeared.

Since then, Irish and British media reports have placed all three either in Venezuela or Cuba, where Connolly had been based for several years.

The trio's unexpected reappearance on Irish soil sent shock waves through Northern Ireland's peace process, which has been taking dynamic turns in recent days.

The IRA last week declared that its 1997 cease-fire was permanent and promised to resume disarmament soon, and Britain began dismantling army installations in response.

Spokesmen for the British and Irish governments denied yesterday any advance knowledge of the three men's return.

They insisted that the Colombia case had not been part of the governments' recent negotiations with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland.

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