Hunt on for convicted Irishmen

Arrest warrants have been issued for the three men

A nationwide hunt is under way to try to find three Irish republicans convicted of training Marxist rebels in Colombia.

Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were sentenced to 17 years after an appeal court reversed their acquittals on the charge.

The Colombian authorities claimed the men had fled the country before they could be re-arrested.

But Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane said she was suspicious of the claims.

The men vanished while on bail awaiting the court of appeal decision on Thursday.

There are reports the Colombian authorities have asked Interpol for help in tracing them.

Colombian Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio is reported to have told Reuters news agency on Friday that they would try to establish where the trio had gone.

"We know they left the country, but we will try to find out what country has received them in order to see that justice is done," he said.

However, Ms Ruane, who has long campaigned for the men's release, said she did not trust the claim that the trio had fled from Colombia.

She said she had no idea where the men were but she intended to go to the country on Saturday.

"The last time I saw them was the night we took them out of jail in June," she said.

Party President Gerry Adams has said the verdict was "outrageous" and a "grievous miscarriage of justice".

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said that the appeal court decision had come as "a surprise".

"My initial reaction is surprise at the overturning of the verdict, given the complete exoneration in the lower court, and secondly, the severity of the sentence," he said.

He added that Irish officials would contact the Colombian authorities about the case.

However, Ireland's deputy prime minister Mary Harney said she had "no reason to believe" that a miscarriage of justice was involved in the case.

Ms Harney said that the government wanted to see the men appeal their sentences, and that she did not see why they should have a negative impact on the peace process.

The men, who had been accused of being IRA members, were found guilty in the April trial of travelling on false passports.

They were acquitted of training Farc guerrillas, but the Colombian attorney general appealed against that decision.

A judge had ordered the men to remain in the country pending the outcome of the appeal.

Hardline unionists said the affair proved Sinn Fein was "not fit" to share power in Northern Ireland.

Airport arrests

Ulster Unionist South Antrim MP David Burnside said: "It's time we accepted the proof that republican Sinn Fein leadership still have a terrorist threat, still are involved in widespread criminality throughout the whole of Ireland, have links with international terrorist organisations.

"They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. It's time we moved on."

DUP assembly member Ian Paisley Jr said the "decision has far wider ramifications than what's happening in the judicial system in Colombia".

McCauley, 41, is from Lurgan in County Armagh, Monaghan, 58, is from County Donegal and Connolly, 38, is from Dublin.

The three had been detained at Bogota's El Dorado airport in August 2001 as they were about to board a flight out of the country.

Their arrest led to speculation that Irish republicans had formed links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The main charge against them was that they had been teaching the rebels urban terrorism techniques.

The Irishmen strenuously denied this, saying they were in the area to monitor the fledgling peace process as well as being eco-tourists.

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