The Irish Government was tonight awaiting an official request to extradite three Irishmen convicted of training rebels back to Colombia.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern ended his holidays early and sent an Irish Ambassador to Bogota in a bid to defuse a political row that has already drawn in the British and US governments, the EU Parliament and dealt a serious blow to the Northern Ireland peace process.
Pressure has been growing on the Government to take action after one of the men appeared on television on Friday to announce that he and his comrades had arrived back in the country eight months after being sentenced in their absence to 17 years in a Colombian jail.
The Colombian government demanded they be returned to prison, unionists called for the men’s immediate arrest and the Northern Ireland Office warned they would be detained if they set foot north of the border.
But the Irish Government has said it is a matter for the courts since no extradition treaty exists between Ireland and Colombia.
The US administration also stepped into the row surrounding the return of James Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, while a Democratic Unionist MEP tabled a question on the topic in a bid to pile extra pressure on the Irish Government.
Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey claimed Ireland ran the risk of making itself a haven for terrorists if it did not take action against the men.
Meanwhile, the families of the men released a statement expressing relief at their return home.
An Government spokesman said it had not yet received an official extradition request from the Colombian government but was awaiting developments.
He said Mr Ahern returned to Dublin this afternoon to meet senior officials amid the deepening political crisis.
“On his instructions, senior officials met with the US Ambassador and the British Embassy’s Charge d’Affairs in the absence of the British Ambassador,” he said.
“The Taoiseach also requested the Irish Ambassador to Colombia, who is resident in Mexico, to travel to Bogota to meet the Colombian authorities.
“The purpose of these three meetings is to set out the Irish legal and political context and to listen to anything they have to say.”
A US Department of State spokesperson said the three men were fugitives from Colombian justice.
“We believe this is a matter that should be pursued by the Irish and Colombian governments,” he said.
“The United States condemns contributions to terrorism such as the three were found guilty of, no matter where perpetrated.”
European Union chiefs were also urged to use the situation to put the Irish Government to the test over its attitude towards terrorism.
Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister tabled a question in the European Parliament – to be answered next month.
EU governments and EU Commission officials ave been asked: “Following the unimpeded return of convicted terrorist fugitives, Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, to the Republic of Ireland from Colombia, and given the EU’s declared commitment to support the fight against international terrorism, what steps has the Council of Ministers/Commission taken to ensure that the Irish government does not provide sanctuary for these international terrorists and is the Council/Commission satisfied that Europol did everything possible to thwart their return?”
Since their arrest in Bogota in August 2001, Monaghan, McCauley and Connolly have denied claims that they were training FARC rebels.
Monaghan repeated in a television interview on Friday their assertion that they were in Colombia to study the country’s peace process.
The trio have been in hiding since the Colombian Court of Appeal overturned in December their acquittal of the charges.
Earlier today, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos reiterated his call to the Irish Government to either extradite or imprison the trio.
“It is very clear, they should come to Colombia and pay the due they have with Colombian justice, which is a sentence to 17 years for training a terrorist organisation called the Farc in bomb-making, in different types of uses of explosives, which we have seen in Colombia that have become very, very dangerous and very, very damaging to Colombian civilians and Colombian military,” Mr Santos said.
“The least we expect from the Irish government is they either pay their sentence in Irish jails or that they be extradited.
“How? We do not know exactly at this precise moment.”
Irish Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan also urged the three Irishmen to surrender themselves to gardaí.
“Nobody in the country, these men or anybody else, is above the law and nobody is below it,” Mr Brennan said.
He acknowledged the reappearance of the men had caused problems for the peace process, which had been boosted by the IRA’s recent decision to abandon its armed campaign.
The Minister said the situation had soured relationships with the US.
“It doesn’t do any good for our relationship with the United States, we have major investment programmes here with the United States for example,” he told RTE radio.
“We are not harbouring terrorists, we have a common law system, it is entirely different.
“It’s one thing for the United States to say something like that, it is a political statement.”