Phone clue to Omagh bomb gang found.

28 February 1999 
The Sunday Times
Maeve Sheehan

Police investigating the Omagh bomb atrocity are closing in on the leaders of the Real IRA after the discovery of two mobile phones that they suspect were used by those planning the blast. Police in the republic now believe a series of calls made minutes before the explosion, which killed 29 people and injured almost 300, could be vital evidence. Disclosure of the possible breakthrough coincided with yesterday's arrest of Kevin Murray, 45, from Dundalk.

He was already on bail awaiting trial on charges not related to the Omagh bombing of possessing explosive sub stances, a detonator and a timer. The Irish police yesterday confirmed they now wanted to question him about Omagh. Two more men, both in their twenties, were also arrested in Dundalk yesterday under Ireland's anti-terrorist laws and were being questioned in connection with the bombing.

Irish police have recently recovered two mobile phones believed to have been used by the terrorists to relay messages after they planted the massive bomb in Omagh town centre. The explosion - the worst in the North's history - triggered the biggest joint investigation with police in the republic.

The development followed a spate of arrests in the North and in the republic last week. Police believe, however, that some of those arrested had innocently supplied or held mobile phones for members of the Real IRA, the dissident republican group that is thought to be behind the blast.

Police sources say there is evidence suggesting that one of the phones they found is owned by Colm Murphy, 48, a businessman and publican from Dundalk, a border town in Co Louth. They believe the phone could have been used by the republican unit planning the Omagh bomb. They suspect other mobile phone owners were persuaded to make their phones available to those behind the bombing.

Many of those who were arrested last week can be linked to Murphy, through his building subcontracting firm.

Murphy appeared last week at Dublin's non-jury Special Criminal Court, which hears terrorist and serious crime trials, and was charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and membership of an illegal organisation.

Among the others arrested were Derek Brady, 35, who was released on police bail in April last year after being found in possession of explosive substances; Francis Mackey, a former Sinn Fein councillor who is now chairman of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the political wing of the Real IRA; and Oliver Traynor, a glazier from Dundalk. They were all released without charge.

The latest developments were the result of an eight-month intelligence gathering operation following the atrocity.

Detectives identified a pattern of mobile telephone numbers that were being regularly used by a group of republicans linked to the Real IRA. Police then singled out two numbers. Records revealed that a series of calls was exchanged between the two phones on August 15 in the crucial 30 minutes before the blast. Using sophisticated telecommunications technology, police were able to pinpoint the locations from which the calls were made. One phone was tracked to the outskirts of Omagh and the second to Forkhill, the south Armagh village from where warning calls were made from a public phonebox.

Police suspect a builder, aged in his thirties, of making the calls from Omagh. They believe he helped to transport a stolen Vauxhall car packed with explosives from Forkhill to Omagh town centre. Within minutes of abandoning the car bomb, he made the first in a series of phone calls to his accomplice in south Armagh. Police believe that, after receiving instructions about the location of the car, the accomplice then made warning calls from a telephone box in the village to the Samaritans and Ulster Television. The warnings were misleading, causing the RUC to move shoppers towards the lethal Vauxhall.

The developments have led detectives to concentrate their attention on the seven-man Real IRA "executive" which they believe sanctioned the blast.

Michael McKevitt, a businessman who lives in a middle-class suburb of Dundalk, is the suspected leader of the Real IRA. Others under investigation include Michael Burke, a convicted kidnapper, who is believed to be national organiser and recruitment officer for the splinter group. McKevitt has denied involvement with the Real IRA and the Omagh bomb. However, McKevitt and his wife, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, acknowledge that they are the leaders of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.

Detectives are focusing particular attention on the leader of a Real IRA unit based in south Armagh which they believe orchestrated the bombing operation. The man, who is in his thirties and who is not McKevitt, is originally from the North. He has been arrested in the past for cross-border smuggling, although he is officially unemployed. Another key figure is a former IRA "engineer" or bomb-maker, whom police suspect of making the timing unit which set off the detonator used in the blast. Another Real IRA suspect is a market gardener from Munster who has been linked to republican terrorism for more than a decade. Police now believe the blast was the work of a terrorist alliance of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, another republican terrorist faction which has yet to declare a ceasefire.

Colm Murphy, who was also charged last week with membership of an illegal organisation, was prominent in Republican Sinn Fein, the political wing of Continuity IRA.He was jailed for five years in America in 1983 after he was caught in an FBI "sting" trying to buy 20 automatic rifles for the Irish National Liberation Army.

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