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Sinn Fein set to protest raids

Around 200 police took part in the dawn raids
Around 200 police took part in the dawn raids

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Irish republican party Sinn Fein is planning a series of protests outside police stations in Northern Ireland following unprecedented police raids on its offices.

The move comes a day after 200 police officers swooped on homes in north and west Belfast as well as Sinn Fein's main office in the Northern Ireland Assembly building, Stormont, as part of a probe into Irish Republican Army activities in the city.

Three police stations in north, east and west Belfast, as well as one each in County Londonderry, Tyrone and Antrim have selected for demonstrations later on Saturday.

Documents and computer discs were taken away for examination after the raids, which followed a year-long undercover operation on secret IRA intelligence gathering in Belfast, the Press Associated reported.

A former government messenger who once worked inside Castle Buildings where the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid and his ministers have their offices was among three men questioned by anti-terrorist police.

It is understood he was being questioned about allegations of spying on Government ministers for the IRA in Belfast. A woman was also held following the raids.

Sinn Fein says there is a need to demonstrate against the "anti-democracy and anti-Sinn Fein agenda" and claims the protests were "politically inspired" police action.

Sinn Fein is widely regarded as being the political wing of the IRA, a charge the party denies.

All sides in Belfast have admitted Friday's operation has left the peace process in its deepest crisis yet amid fears that the fallout has the potential to wreck the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein spokesman Conor Murphy told CNN the operation was part of an "anti-Sinn Fein and anti-Irish republican agenda" and that it was a bid to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process.

"I think there is an element within the security service who have been against the Good Friday Agreement from the start, who consider that they have unfinished business with the IRA and wish to bring down the Good Friday Agreement and get back to a war situation."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly checks his party's office after the search

Northern Ireland First Minister and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has called on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to expel Sinn Fein from the power-sharing assembly, where it has two seats, following the raids.

In a public message to Reid, Trimble said: "You have a duty to act. You have a responsibility to act. We expect you to act. You must act."

He also told journalists he believed the raids were related to "an IRA intelligence operation directed against the upper echelons of the government."

Trimble, who is to meet Blair in London next week, has already warned he will withdraw his ministers from the executive next January unless the IRA disbands.

The IRA has already been blamed for the theft of Special Branch files in Belfast last March while three suspected IRA members in Colombia are facing accusations of training FARC guerrillas.

The raids came on the same day three men accused of being members of the IRA went on trial in Colombia for allegedly taking part in the training of rebels. (Full story)

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