Three men wanted by Colombian authorities for training Marxist rebels may have plunged the Northern Ireland peace process into new difficulties by resurfacing in the Republic, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern warned tonight.
Mr Ahern denied any deal involving the trio was done in return for the IRA’s decision to end its war.
And despite Colombia’s Vice President urging Mr Ahern to extradite the men, he insisted it would be up to the courts to decide their fate.
The appearance of Jim Monaghan on Irish television, eight months after he vanished along with Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley, stunned security chiefs in Dublin who knew nothing of their return to the state.
The whereabouts of the men, all Irish republicans, had been a mystery since they went missing before a Colombian appeals court sentenced them to 17 years in jail for training FARC guerillas.
As he grappled with a huge new diplomatic and political headache, Mr Ahern tonight insisted: “We had no knowledge that they had returned to Ireland until the news broke.
“There was no prior warning to us.”
Unionists were incandescent with rage after Monaghan told Irish state broadcaster RTE in an interview from a secret location that all three men had returned in the last few days.
Coming just a week after the IRA declared it was dumping its guns and ending the armed struggle, some suspected this was part of a package to appease republicans.
But backing up Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams’ vehement denials that his party had any part in negotiating the men’s return, Mr Ahern insisted the they had never factored during political talks.
“Not only was there no deal, the issue was never referred to in discussions,” he said.
“Some of the suggestions yesterday that we had prior knowledge, which we didn’t, are false, untrue and unhelpful.”
Yet Mr Ahern conceded that the so-called Colombia Three had caused problems for London, Dublin and Washington ever since they were seized in Bogota in August 2001 while travelling on false passports.
After a protracted legal proceedings an appeal court reversed their original acquittal last December.
The Taoiseach added: “They have created difficulties in the peace process in a number of occasions in the last few years.
“Their return has created an enormous amount of difficulties as well.
“It’s not helpful to the peace process in my view.”
Even though no extradition treaty exists between the Irish Republic and Colombia, leaders in the South American country demanded action.
Colombian Vice President Franciso Santos claimed Mr Ahern faced a “legal and moral obligation” to return the men.
He declared: “Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern must demonstrate his country’s commitment to the global fight against terrorism.”
Mr Ahern insisted, however, that the lack of any formal legal arrangements between the two countries, could not be ignored.
“If the authorities wish to make a request, we will deal with it in the normal way,” he added.
“Extradition is a matter for the courts and that’s how it will be dealt with.”