7 charged with terror crimes in Real IRA crackdown

Seven Irish republicans, including three relatives of a senior reputed Real IRA member and four others allegedly operating a forest rifle range, were arraigned Saturday on terror charges following a security sweep against militants plotting to sabotage Northern Ireland's peace process.

Three were charged with "directing terror," a crime never before levied against a suspected Irish Republican Army member in Northern Ireland. Use of the charge suggests that police and Britain's domestic spy agency, MI5, believe they have caught senior members of the Real IRA faction and will present evidence from electronic surveillance and informers, typically the only means to convict senior figures.

Three relatives of Colin Duffy, a reputed senior Real IRA figure, appeared in a courtroom southwest of Belfast surrounded by police officers in full riot gear. None offered pleas and all were ordered held without bail until their next court appearance June 8.

Duffy's brothers Paul, 47, and Damien, 42, and cousin Shane Duffy, 41, all were charged with four counts of preparing acts of terrorism, conspiring to murder and conspiring to cause explosions. Paul Duffy also was charged with directing terrorism.

Colin Duffy, who wasn't charged as part of the latest sweep, was acquitted in January of murdering two off-duty British soldiers. He joined relatives and friends in the courtroom's public gallery and cheered supportively as the three men were led away in handcuffs.

And in Omagh — the Northern Ireland town where the Real IRA committed the single deadliest bombing of the entire four-decade conflict — a woman and three men were arraigned on charges of preparing acts of terrorism, possessing a rifle and ammunition, and attending a Real IRA training camp in secluded woods near Omagh.

Two of those charged, 37-year-old Sharon Rafferty and 46-year-old Sean Kelly, also were charged with directing terror. All four were ordered held without bail until their next court date Tuesday.

The Real IRA killed 29 people, mostly women and children, in an Aug. 15, 1998, car-bomb attack on the center of Omagh. The group laid low for nearly a decade but in 2007 resumed attacks, chiefly against police and their civilian supporters.

Policemen testified that they had audio recordings of Rafferty and Kelly discussing how to target police officers, acquiring guns, running firearms training and financing Real IRA operations. Kelly is a former convicted member of the Provisional IRA, the dominant faction that renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.

All four allegedly were seen leaving a Real IRA firearms-training session in March, and police said they recovered both DNA evidence and about 200 casings of spent bullets from the scene. Police said they had found a rifle, terrorist-style masks, rubber gloves and four sets of waterproof clothing at the home of another man facing charges, Gavin Coney.

Northern Ireland authorities created the offense of "directing terror" in 1994 as a way to convict previously untouchable commanders of paramilitary groups, who typically didn't directly participate in attacks, but the new charge has been applied only once before: to convict Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, a notorious Belfast militant from the British Protestant side of the community, in 1995. Adair had been tape-recorded bragging to undercover policemen about his murderous exploits against the IRA's host Catholic community.

Authorities in the neighboring Republic of Ireland also introduced the "directing terror" charge in 1998 following the Omagh bomb atrocity, but it too has been used just once: to convict the founder and original senior commander of the Real IRA, Michael McKevitt. Proving that case required use of an American double agent recruited by the FBI and MI5 to befriend McKevitt.

Police braced for potential trouble Saturday in the Duffys' power base of Lurgan, a religiously polarized town southwest of Belfast. Typically Real IRA members and supporters have mounted car hijackings and bomb threats whenever Colin Duffy or his relatives have faced legal action.

On Saturday night, British Army experts defused a live pipe bomb in the Belfast suburb of Dunmurry. No group claimed responsibility for the threat, which forced police to evacuate families from several nearby homes and shut a major road.

Police seized a gun and ammunition during a follow-up search of the area but made no arrests.