- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

BELFAST, Northern Ireland | Police arrested three suspected IRA dissidents - including a well-known Irish republican - Saturday on suspicion of killing two off-duty British soldiers, an attack intended to trigger wider violence in Northern Ireland.

Police said they arrested three men - ages 21, 32 and 41 - 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 Irish Republican Army figure at the time of the group’s 1997 cease-fire - a truce that dissidents are trying to destroy.

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

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

Mr. 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 in the back of the head while on foot patrol in Lurgan in June 1997.

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

Saturday’s arrest of Mr. 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.

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 Sinn Fein has previously defended Mr. Duffy as an innocent man and a victim of British conspiracies.

Sinn Fein offered no reaction to the arrests. Mr. 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 getting pizzas. Two soldiers, ages 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.

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