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Gun haul 'may have been linked to murder attempt on Tom King'

Suzanne McGonagle s.mcgonagle@irishnews.com

A GUN haul of 40 weapons found by two teenagers in a Somerset river may have been linked to an IRA murder attempt on a former Northern Ireland secretary of state.

The weapons, which included the barrel of a Browning .50 machine gun and an M16 assault rifle, were discovered by two 16-year-old boys who were magnet fishing at a bridge in a nature reserve.

The teenagers were fishing in Grey-lake, Taunton when they found the weapons, which included a Paras' 'AK-47', MG 42, SA23 9mm, M16 Rifle and a Smith and Wesson revolver.

Police said they believed the haul could be from a "former weapons factory in the area".

But there was also speculation that the gun haul may be linked to a murder attempt on Tom King, a former Northern Ireland secretary of state.

Mr King had a home in Wiltshire - around an hour away from Somerset - which was believed to be the target of an assassination attempt by the IRA in 1987.

Several people were arrested close to his home, with another man detained near Wells in Somerset.

Martina Shanahan, John McCann and Finbar Cullen were subsequently charged and convicted of conspiracy to murder and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

But the trio, dubbed the Winchester Three, were freed after serving two and a half years after their convictions quashed.

The Court of Appeal ruled that their case could have been prejudiced by comments made by Mr King who said the defendants should not have the right to remain silent.

The appeal court agreed King's remarks could have prejudiced the trial and ordered the three to be freed.

The IRA at the time were believed to be planning retaliation for the deaths of eight men in a shoot-out with the SAS in Loughgall in May 1987.

Most of the guns found by the teenagers were believed to have been in pieces but were in relatively good condition and could be easily put back together.

James Cork and his friend made the discovery last week as they used a magnet to comb the water.

"There were a few whole weapons but not many. Some were machine guns, pistols and revolvers.

"And there was a massive machine gun on a stand," James told The Sun.

The teenager took one of the guns home before his mother Katherine contacted police.

Police later dredged the water and also found the Browning weapon.

An Avon and Somerset Police spokesman said the items found "were disassembled parts of about firearms which are thought to originate from the second world war".

"The police dive team carried out an operation on Wednesday and recovered further rusted items - parts of weapons in various states of disrepair and badly rusted, beyond use.

"All items - parts of 40 firearms - have been taken to the force armoury where they will be destroyed," the spokesman said.

* WEAPONS FIND: A gun haul, reported in yesterday's Sun newspaper, could have been linked to a murder attempt on former secretary of state Tom King

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