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Man held in England for Semtex haul 'was under surveillance'

By Deborah McAleese

Published 21/09/2015

Police officers make arrests after the arms and explosives find in west Belfast last Friday
Police officers make arrests after the arms and explosives find in west Belfast last Friday

A man arrested in north east England in connection with the discovery of guns and explosives in Belfast was under surveillance by detectives for several weeks.

It is understood the 45-year-old, who was detained by police in Sunderland yesterday, is from Northern Ireland but had been working in England.

PSNI officers, alongside officers from the North East Counter-Terrorism Unit and Northumbria police, arrested the man yesterday morning as part of a major investigation into dissident republican activities.

The involvement of police in England raised speculation of a potential dissident republican terrorist plot outside Northern Ireland.

A security source said it was "doubtful", but that it "could not be absolutely ruled out".

The source added that police had been watching the 45-year-old "for some time".

Half-a-kilo of Semtex explosives, detonators, handguns and ammunition were seized from a house on the Ballymurphy Road during a police operation that began last Thursday night and lasted into Friday morning.

Police said the operation was part of an investigation into "violent dissident terrorist activity".

As part of a follow-up operation, a 21-year-old woman and a 29-year-old man were arrested in the west Belfast area yesterday.

A 67-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman who were arrested in connection with the weapons find on Friday have been released pending a report to the PPS.

Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said he welcomed the weapons find.

"It is vital that the police continue with this intelligence-led operation and that dissident republicans are targeted. It is good to see that people in the republican community are passing information to the police," the DUP MLA said.

He added: "I also welcome that explosives have been taken out of our society, because we all know that these people are totally intent on using explosives and guns for murder and mayhem in our society."

Unionist politicians have raised questions over whether the Semtex came from a cache of the Provisional IRA's arsenal that was meant to have been decommissioned a decade ago.

Semtex, first supplied by Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya to the PIRA in the 1980s, was used in high-profile bombings in the early 90s, including Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf in London.

UUP MP Tom Elliott said: "We need to know how old the material was and if it is proven to have come from an old PIRA stockpile, we need to know just how it came into the possession of dissidents."

He added: "In light of the announcement by the Secretary of State of a new independently reviewed assessment of paramilitary organisations, these are exactly the type of questions which need to be answered."

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said he was pleased that the police were "doing their job in protecting the community".

"From our perspective, what we have to do is continue to support the Garda and the PSNI in the good work that they are doing," he added.

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