- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

BELFAST — An apparent breakaway group of the Irish Republican Army, the hard-line Real IRA, is facing an unprecedented series of court actions that could send one of its leading figures to prison and five others into bankruptcy.

The development follows an international intelligence sting across three jurisdictions and a unique legal action by relatives of 29 persons blown apart by the Real IRA in the town center of Omagh, Northern Ireland.

The Aug. 15, 1998, bomb blast was the worst single massacre of the 33-year conflict in Northern Ireland. No one has been prosecuted in criminal court.

But attorneys for the families filed a private suit in the High Court in Belfast this month seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. It is the first time a civil court has been used to seek damages from a terrorist organization.

One former IRA source said last week that this amounted to victims turning the tables on terrorists.

"Human rights legislation is frequently used by various groups against the state," he said. "The use of civil laws to trace the Real IRA's financial proceeds so that individual members are made to compensate victims will be controversial to say the least."

The court could seize property, shareholdings and freeze personal bank accounts from Ireland to the United States if the claim for damages for the deaths of relatives is successful.

The Real IRA is a dissident faction of militants who decry the peace efforts outlined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. They are believed to have two four-man cells working in England, each unknown to the other.

Previous RIRA attacks were directed at the MI6 intelligence agency building in Whitehall and the BBC's headquarters also in London. They are thought to have recruited at least one experienced explosives expert from the IRA and two other senior figures this month.

With access as well to some IRA arms caches courtesy of defectors, they are now one of the most potentially lethal international groupings.

No figure was more important to building up those destructive capabilities than 51-year-old Michael McKevitt, a former IRA quartermaster who knew where the organization's arms were buried.

He is now awaiting trial on a new charge of directing terrorism in Dublin following the intervention of the FBI and an American businessman, David Rupert, who will be the prosecution's main witness.

Mr. McKevitt reportedly was seeking money to buy guns and approached Mr. Rupert, who infiltrated the group so deeply that he attended RIRA Army Council meetings while keeping in close contact with British intelligence and the Irish security forces.

If convicted, Mr. McKevitt, who is also one of those named in the families' private prosecution in Belfast, faces a life sentence.

The 500-pound Omagh bomb tore apart a street crammed with shoppers, injuring about 300 people in addition to the 29 killed. Images of broken bodies strewn over a wide public area incited new levels of public revulsion.

While the criminal investigation into the bombing was hampered by silence and insufficient evidence, the identities of the bombing team, known to police, were broadcast on a BBC documentary.

Former Assistant Chief Constable Eric Anderson, who led the police investigation, told families he knows who made and planted the bomb. "If I am asked in a civil court to confirm the names, I will," he said.

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