- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND (AP) - Police arrested three suspected IRA dissidents _ including a well-known Irish republican _ Saturday on suspicion of killing two off-duty British soldiers, an attack designed to trigger wider violence in Northern Ireland.

Police said they arrested three men aged 41, 32 and 21 during house raids on the Irish Catholic side of Lurgan, a bitterly polarized town southwest of Belfast, and the overwhelmingly Catholic village of Bellaghy to the northwest.

A detective identified the eldest suspect as Colin Duffy, the most notorious Irish republican in Lurgan, whom police branded a top IRA figure at the time of that group’s 1997 cease-fire _ the truce that the dissidents now are trying to destroy.

The detective spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because police officially do not identify arrested people if they have not been charged.

Police searching Duffy’s home came under attack from youths throwing bricks, stones and bottles in the Kilwilkie district of Lurgan, where loyalties to Duffy run high. No injuries were reported.

Duffy was convicted of killing a former soldier in Lurgan in 1993, but was freed on appeal three years later after the key witness against him was identified as a member of an outlawed Protestant gang.

He was back behind bars within a year after police identified him as the gunman who committed the IRA’s last two killings before its cease-fire: two Protestant policemen shot point-blank through the backs of their heads while on foot patrol in Lurgan in June 1997.

The prosecutors’ case against Duffy collapsed after their key witness suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew her testimony. Two years later, Protestant extremists assassinated Duffy’s lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, with an under-car booby trap bomb in a case still being investigated today because of allegations that police were involved.

Saturday’s arrest of Duffy appeared likely to pose a political challenge for Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that is the leading Irish nationalist voice in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration _ and is trying to convince Protestants of its newfound support for British embrace law and order.

The leading Sinn Fein member of the coalition, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, earlier this week denounced IRA dissidents as “traitors” and pledged to support the police’s hunt for the gunmen. But previously, Sinn Fein has defended Duffy as an innocent man and a victim of British conspiracies.

Sinn Fein offered no reaction to the arrests. McGuinness was traveling Saturday in the United States and could not be reached for comment.

Saturday’s arrests came a week after the Real IRA splinter group ambushed unarmed soldiers outside an army base as they collected pizzas, the first of two deadly gun attacks against British security forces.

Two soldiers, aged 21 and 23, died and four other people were seriously wounded, including both pizza delivery men _ whom the Real IRA described as legitimate targets because they were “collaborating” with the enemy. Police said the attack involved three men: two armed with assault rifles and a getaway driver.

The IRA dissidents next struck Monday when Constable Stephen Carroll, 48, was shot fatally through the back of the head as he sat in his police car in Craigavon, the town beside Lurgan. A different splinter group, the Continuity IRA, admitted responsibility for that killing.

Police arrested two people _ a 17-year-old boy and a 37-year-old man _ on Tuesday, and a third man in his mid-20s on Friday, on suspicion of involvement in killing the policeman. All were still being interrogated Saturday.

The dissidents insist they have no intention of stopping attacks on British security forces and the civilians who work with them _ the policy that the IRA pursued during its own 1970-97 attempt to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Most IRA members agreed to renounce violence and disarm in 2005.

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