· Brother of dissident group founder held in Vilnius
· Irish police carry out searches in Dundalk area
Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent.
Thursday January 24, 2008
The brother of one of the Real IRA’s founders has been arrested in Lithuania while allegedly trying to buy arms for the dissident Irish republican terror group. Michael Campbell, 35, was arrested in Vilnius on Tuesday in a “sting” involving the local police, Garda Síochána, Interpol and British security services.
An unnamed Irish woman was detained alongside Campbell as he allegedly tried to negotiate a deal with a police agent who was posing as an international arms dealer.
The arms were said by local police to have been destined for a breakaway Real IRA faction led by Campbell‘s brother Liam.
Irmantas Mikelionis, deputy head prosecutor at Vilnius, said Campbell had been remanded in custody for three months and the woman for a fortnight.
“They are accused of trying to get arms, munitions, guns and explosive material and they are accused also of being supportive of a terrorist group,” the prosecutor said.
It is understood that the duo were placed under police surveillance when they arrived in Lithuania last weekend. As part of the sting, Campbell, from Dundalk, County Louth, was shown an array of firearms by the police agent.
The pair were arrested at around midday on Tuesday after armed detectives raided a garage. They were brought in for questioning and then appeared before a court in the city yesterday.
Following the arrests, Irish police carried out a number of searches last night in the Dundalk area of Louth and along the Irish border.
The breakaway Real IRA faction led by Liam Campbell has a couple of dozen members and is slightly smaller than the original Real IRA group. In recent months the faction has been trying to re-start the organisation’s “armed struggle”. Its Derry unit is thought by police in Northern Ireland to have been involved in the attempted murder of one of their officers last November. The officer, Jim Doherty, a Catholic, had joined the force less than two years ago. Despite the multiple shotgun wounds he received during the attack he survived.
Although the organisation is not numerically strong it still poses a threat. Last year Sir Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told officers on patrol they had to revert to wearing body armour.
According to Irish intelligence sources, the Liam Campbell faction has strongholds in the Louth/south Armagh area, as well as Derry and Cork, but is known to be in need of money and weapons.
Four years ago, Michael Campbell was at the centre of an alleged Real IRA cigarette smuggling racket. He was found guilty by a Dutch court of defrauding the exchequer of €327,000 (£244,000) in excise duty and was sentenced to four months in prison. The defence lawyer had claimed that the link between the smuggling and the dissidents’ group was “exaggerated” and said that Campbell had denied any involvement with the Real IRA.
The Real IRA has attempted to procure weapons elsewhere in eastern Europe in recent times. Seven years ago three of its members were arrested in Croatia after an international security operation involving MI6 smashed an arms smuggling route running from the Balkans to Ireland. The group had planned to ship rifles, handguns, rocket launchers and explosives over Europe in bogus aid lorries supposedly returning from humanitarian missions in the former Yugoslavia.
So far attempts to buy weaponry in the former Soviet bloc have ended in disaster for paramilitary groups. As far back as late 1993 the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force tried unsuccessfully to smuggle in tonnes of arms and explosives which members had bought from arms dealers in Poland. It later transpired that the entire operation was yet another sting, set up in this case by MI6 and the RUC’s special branch.
Liam Campbell meanwhile faces a high court civil action this year brought by the relatives of the Omagh bombing victims. This month, a high court judge granted permission for the affected families to sue a number of men, including Liam Campbell, who they allege were behind the plot to bomb the County Tyrone market town in 1998. Twenty-nine men, women and childred died in the bomb attack, which was the single biggest atrocity of the Northern Ireland Troubles.