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Police apology for Sinn Fein raid

Four people were arrested during the raid

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland police chief Hugh Orde has apologised for the raid on Sinn Fein offices that has brought the power-sharing government to the brink of collapse.

Up to 19 uniformed officers and two plain-clothes detectives piled into the Republican party's offices at Parliament Buildings, Belfast, on Friday.

The raid was part of a series of searches being carried out by officers probing an alleged IRA spy network.

Four people were arrested amid claims that republicans had infiltrated the Northern Ireland Office and were spying on highly sensitive documents.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has said the allegations were bigger than Watergate.

On Monday, Orde insisted the investigation into the infiltration at Stormont was fully justified but he admitted it could have been done more sensitively.

Arriving for talks with Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, he said: "I regret the way it was done. You can take that as a general apology."

He accepted there had been an "error of judgment" in how police handled the planned raids.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged all parties in Northern Ireland's peace process not to take hasty action as pro-British hardliners called for a walk out of the executive.

Democratic Unionist leader Rev Ian Paisley made the call as one of four people arrested on Friday -- Sinn Fein's head of administration, Denis Donaldson, 52 -- was remanded in custody for possessing information likely to be of use to terrorists.

On Tuesday, Blair will hold talks with Trimble and he has summoned Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness later this week to explain the arrests and raids on republican homes in north and west Belfast.

The allegations against republicans have dramatically soured relationships between key players in the Northern Ireland peace process. (Q&A)

The Ulster Unionists have warned the government that if it does not move to expel Sinn Fein ministers, they will ensure there will be no executive featuring republicans.

Blair's official spokesman told reporters the prime minister was "completely seized of the gravity of the current situation" and believed it was time to take stock, not act hastily.

As Paisley's walked out of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the North Antrim MP told the Press Association he had written to Trimble asking him "to join with us in resigning from ministerial office."

"I have also provided the speaker of the Assembly with a letter to be opened upon receipt of a letter of resignation from Mr. Trimble and confirmation of the resignations of his Ulster Unionist ministerial colleagues."

Trimble has said allegations that republicans infiltrated the government's Stormont headquarters were bigger than Watergate.

Trimble, who is the first minister of the power-sharing executive, said the Northern Ireland Office had questions to answer about the breach of security.

He also said while he had ideas about how his party would handle the current crisis, a lot would depend on his meeting with Blair in London on Tuesday.

Donaldson, Sinn Fein's head of administration, is charged with five counts including possession of information which was likely to be of use to terrorists.

The three other people, including a former British civil servant suspected of passing documents to Donaldson until quitting his job in September 2001, are still being questioned, with security sources predicting more suspects will be charged.

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.

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.

Friday's 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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