By Jack Holland
A reported mortar attack on a Colombian army base in Pitalito which killed 10 soldiers in the early hours of Monday, Feb. 11, has once more raised the specter of IRA links to the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The group, described as “narco-terrorist,” is believed to have carried out the attack using a gas canister packed with explosives fired from a pickup truck 600 yards from the base at 2 a.m.
The attack came as an advertisement appeared in El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper, on behalf of the three Irishmen, all with IRA or Sinn Fein links, who have been held since August in Colombian jails on charges that they were helping FARC improve its mortar-launching capabilities. The advertisement claims the three, James Monaghan, Niall Connolly, and Martin McCauley, have been framed.
However, Colombian prosecutors stated over the weekend that they now believe they have gathered enough evidence to prosecute the three men. If defense lawyers fail to convince the presiding court that the evidence is somehow faulty or lacking, a trial date will be set by a judge. If found guilty, the men face up to eight years in jail.
The three men were arrested in Bogota. Monaghan and McCauley have been linked to the IRA and its “engineering” department, specializing in weapons technology, and Connolly has been the Sinn Fein representative in Cuba for several years.
A security source called the attack “an exact replica of what the Provisionals have been doing in Northern Ireland.”
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Reliable sources close to the Colombian security forces are saying that there has been a noticeable improvement over the last two years in the accuracy of FARC mortar attacks on security bases.
“The consensus is that something dramatic and consistent has taken place in the last two years,” said one. “Before, FARC had to set up their mortars within eyesight of the target.”
The Colombian attack has been compared to that on the Newry police station. On Feb. 28, 1985, the IRA fired nine mortars at the station, one of which scored a direct hit on the canteen, killing nine officers, the single biggest loss of life the RUC experienced in its history. Each mortar consisted of a gas cylinder packed with 45 pounds of explosives.
“The devastation was terrible,” said a policeman who survived the attack. “People were completely shredded. You heard the mortars going off and you were lying waiting for them to hit.”
However, last week a report in El Nuevo Herald cited Colombian intelligence officers as theorizing that the base might have been struck by a CL-28 missile. It quoted a FARC defector as claiming that in 1999 and 2000 IRA men brought missile launchers to the guerrillas and helped train them. He said the three arrested in August were involved in these activities.
The FARC attack is part of an escalation of violence which began shortly after Christmas, following negotiations with the government of President Pastrana during which an agreement was reached for the lessening of the army presence on the borders of the large demilitarized zone that FARC controls in return for a rebel cease-fire.
Over the last month, 140 people have been killed in the attacks, which have been directed against energy stations and urban targets. At the beginning of February, General Fernando Tapias, the head of Colombia’s Armed Forces, blamed the IRA for training FARC in “explosives and terrorist techniques.” He told El Nuevo Herald in Miami that the “presence of the IRA in Colombia was fatal for the state.”
Six months ago, FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Velez threatened that the guerrillas would extend their campaign, which has until recently been concentrated in rural areas, into the towns and cities.
Right-wing paramilitaries have responded by attacks on peasant farmers and other alleged supporters of the guerrillas. In one incident at the end of January, 32 farm workers were shot dead in North Santander province near the border with Venezuela.
At the same time, the Bush administration has been stepping up its aid to the Colombian authorities, whose war against narco-terrorist groups it sees as vital to U.S. interests. The U.S. has poured $1.3 billion into “Plan Colombia.” Most recently, it has stepped up its aid to help fight the terrorist threat. Three weeks ago, the U.S. revealed plans to donate two anti-narcotics helicopters to the Colombian police to help them combat terrorist kidnappers. In the last 10 years, 70 Americans have been kidnapped by Colombian groups, 50 of them by terrorist organizations. Ten were murdered.
A letter from five U.S. congressmen, including Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Ben Gilman, who sponsored “Plan Colombia,” said: “We warmly welcome this move.”
Hyde’s committee is currently investigating the alleged links between FARC and the IRA with a view to holding hearings this spring.
However, the investigation, headed by Massachusetts Rep. Tom Delahunt, has stirred controversy in the U.S., where Sinn Fein supporters see it as endangering the Northern Ireland peace process. Most recently, Sen. Christopher Dodd said that he had been “reassured” after meeting with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who, he said, told him: “As angry as you are about this, you cannot have been as angry as I was when I heard it.”
Dodd said that he considered the matter closed. Those who are opposed to the investigation see it as a “total distraction,” he said.
Said one: “Three guys free-lancing should not be allowed to dismantle the peace process.”
When Dodd was asked if he thought that the investigation was a threat to peace in Northern Ireland, his press officer issued the following statement: “This was a serious matter, and Senator Dodd has forcefully expressed himself on this incident. He has discussed this issue with the leadership of Sinn Fein, who have acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, shared his anger that it happened, and assured him that it would not happen again. However, his priority has been — and continues to be — implementation of the peace accords, and that’s where his focus lies. Obviously, there are those in the House that have expressed an interest in holding hearings on this matter and that is for them to decide.”
Those who are determined for the hearings to go ahead point out that regardless of whether they do or not, “the story will come anyway during the trial” of the three Irishmen.
“How can you put your head in the sand?” said one. “The real story is going to be when one of those mortars hit a base with U.S. Special Forces in it.”