Major police raid targeting INLA criminality

IRSP member Gerard Foster remonstrates with police outside the offices of the IRSP in west Belfast Picture Mal McCann.

In a series of surprise raids across Greater Belfast and Co Antrim yesterday police launched a major crackdown on the criminal activities of the INLA. Bimpe Archer watched as the days events unfolded.

AT 10am yesterday, simultaneous briefings were being held at five stations across three policing districts by commanders from the PSNI's Paramilitary Crime Task Force.

Within two hours, 200 officers, supported by colleagues from the National Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs, had been despatched to 12 separate locations for a series of raids aimed at disrupting criminal enterprises operating under the direction of the INLA.

A small command team co-ordinated the massive police action from a single Belfast station, with the Lower Falls in the west of the city the focus of several of the searches.

Armoured Land Rovers and police cars were also sent to south Belfast and suburban Newtownabbey, with support from officers Lisburn and Castlereagh district to carry out searches and additional inquiries in the Co Antrim villages of Crumlin and Glenavy.

The operation had been months in the planning and was being co-ordinated down to the last second. A single premature move could tip off key suspects, who had been under close surveillance for many police hours.

Five arrests were planned under the Terrorism Act and a further two, deemed likely, under (non-terrorism) PACE legislation - a reflection of the intersection between paramilitarism and crime.

The target of the operation, the Belfast INLA, may have been nominally an armed republican group, but the trigger had been ordinary yet serious criminality.

Officers were searching each property for evidence of extortion, paramilitary-style attacks and prostitution - the global hallmarks of organised crime.

Four Romanian women were taken from a house at Agincourt Avenue in south Belfast's Holyland area and spent the day being "assisted by officers" in a PSNI crime suite.

A Romanian man was arrested at the property, which is believed to have been being used as a brothel, on suspicion of human trafficking and controlling prostitution.

This development suggests that the INLA now has links to eastern European organised crime gangs.

In its west Belfast heartland, the operation had a particular focus on alleged extortion from neighbourhood businesses.

Officers spent most of the day executing search warrants and interviewing witnesses.

After the main legwork was complete, Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin of PSNI Crime Operations Department revealed that five people had been arrested - three under the Terrorism Act - and said further detentions were expected.

"It is the largest planned operation conducted by the task force to date into the groups criminal activity and specifically extortion and prostitution," he said.

"...There is not and will not be any hiding place for paramilitaries. They harm people's lives and destroy our communities.

"Today's operation has been successful. I hope it will be more successful as the days unfold. We plan further arrests and today is a significant day."

One of the properties searched was the west Belfast offices of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), the political wing of the INLA.

The IRSP described the operations as "political policing" and a "publicity stunt"

Mr Martin rejected the suggestion, insisting it was a "serious investigation into criminality exploring allegations of extortion of businesses, of prosecution".

"These are serious crimes."

He said he was "not surprised" by the apparent links to European crime gangs.

"I have been a police officer for 32 years... When you are a paramilitary gang, living on the backs of communities, interested in money, you don't care about exploiting people, you don't care about exploiting vulnerable people."

The assistant chief constable appealed to business owners who believe they are being extorted to contact the Paramilitary Crime Taskforce on the non-emergency number 101 .

"We want to hear from you, and as today demonstrates, where we can secure evidence of these suspected offences, we will take action."

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