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Colombia Formally Charges IRA Suspects - 2001-08-22

Colombia has formally charged three Irish Republican Army (IRA) suspects with giving weapons training to leftist guerrillas in the South American country. The development could set back peace efforts both in Northern Ireland and Colombia.

Colombian prosecutors have opened a case against the three IRA suspects.

The men are accused of providing training in the use of high-powered explosives to guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The accused have been identified as Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan. Cuba says Mr. Connolly had been living in Havana in recent years, serving as Latin America representative for the political wing of the IRA, the Sinn Fein party.

Colombian authorities say the accused gave various explanations for their presence in Colombia, at first saying they were tourists, then later saying they had come to learn more about the peace process in the South American nation.

Prosecutors say the suspects will be held without bail for up to eight-months while more evidence is gathered.

Sinn Fein has tried to distance itself from the trio, whose arrest has added new strain to Northern Ireland's peace negotiations.

Unionist political parties are threatening to pull out of a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein unless the IRA disarms.

A leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Michael McGimpsey, said he is upset over the arrests in Colombia, and he wants Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to speak out. "I believe this issue has been profoundly damaging to the political process," he said. "I think it is a matter for republicans, Sinn Fein, and Gerry Adams in particular to clarify where the IRA cease-fire stands."

The IRA has kept its guns silent since a peace agreement took effect on Good Friday in 1998.

In Colombia, authorities say their own peace process could be endangered by guerrilla involvement with the IRA.

The Colombian guerrillas have held sporadic negotiations with the government for the past three years. Now, security officials fear, the rebels may step up urban terrorist attacks with training allegedly provided by the IRA.