Monday March 05 2012

Eight undercover soldiers were at the scene of a high-profile killing carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, a dramatic new report has revealed.

The revelations centre on a controversial attack where three republicans were ambushed minutes after they left a police station in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in 1990.

Former republican prisoner Sam Marshall was killed in a hail of automatic gunfire, but the presence nearby of a red Maestro car, later found to be a military intelligence vehicle, sparked claims of a security force role in the killing.

It has now emerged the car was one of six vehicles in a major surveillance operation involving eight armed undercover soldiers – and though the loyalist killers launched the attack within yards of armed troops and escaped – investigators said there was no evidence of state collusion with the gunmen. But John Marshall, a brother of the 31-year-old murder victim, said: “All we had heard about before this was the Maestro. But now this has opened a big can of worms.”

The three republicans – who included Colin Duffy who was acquitted in January of murdering two soldiers at Massereene Army base in Antrim – had been signing in at the Lurgan police station as part of bail conditions for charges of possession of ammunition.

The presence of the Maestro, and questions over how the loyalists knew when the republican trio would be leaving the police station, sparked major controversy in the 1990s and led the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and government to deny anything suspicious had taken place.

A review of the unsolved case by the police Historical Enquiries Team (HET) found that: at least eight undercover soldiers were deployed near the killing, with their commander monitoring from a remote location; the armed military intelligence personnel at the scene were in six cars, including the noted red Maestro; two plainclothed soldiers with camera equipment were in an observation post at the entrance of the police station as the three republicans arrived and left; two undercover soldiers followed the republicans on foot, and were within 50-100 yards of the attack, but said they did not to see the killing in which the gunmen fired 49 shots.

It also found: after the two masked loyalists jumped from a Rover car and started shooting, the troops did not return fire, claiming it was out of their line of sight and too far away, but alerted colleagues who launched an unsuccessful search for the killers. Despite being in a republican area, the soldiers make no reference to feeling at risk from the gunmen; the killers’ guns are believed to have been used in four other murders and an attempted murder. Weapons of the same type have been linked by police to seven further killings and four attempted murders carried out in 1988/89.

The report added: the RUC found gloves near the gang’s burned-out getaway car, but the gloves were subsequently lost; the RUC sought to deny the existence of a surveillance operation by giving “misleading or incomplete” statements. But RUC Special Branch had briefed the undercover troops; investigators could not rule in, or rule out, that the RUC leaked information to the loyalists. But they said the killers may have gathered their own intelligence.

The HET praised much of the original RUC investigation and found no new lines of inquiry on the attack which was claimed by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. But the Marshall family has said the review of the case – which did not reinterview the soldiers but relied on RUC statements from the time – has only served to raise further questions.