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U.S. outlaws Real IRA

Omagh bomb
Devastation in Omagh caused by a car bomb that killed 29 people  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has outlawed a dissident republican group believed to have carried out Northern Ireland's worst recent bombing atrocity.

The State Department announced on Wednesday that it had designated the Real IRA as a foreign terrorist organisation.

The Real IRA split from the mainstream Irish Republican Army in 1997 and is believed to be behind the August 1998 car bomb attack in Omagh that killed 29 people.

As a result of the designation, many activities, including fundraising, of the Real IRA or its two so-called "front groups" or "political pressure groups" -- the "32 County Sovereignty Movement" and the "Irish Republican Prisoner Welfare Association" -- will be illegal.

The move freezes the group's U.S. assets, making it unlawful to provide funds or other material support to the Real IRA, while representatives and certain members could be denied visas or excluded from the U.S.

A senior State Department official says this is the first time a group with "heavy ties" to the U.S. -- with "sympathisers and supporters" coming from the U.S. -- has been designated as a terrorist organisation. But the "British and Irish government publicly asked us to look into this."

Other designated FTOs include the Abu Nidal group, the Abu Sayyaf group and the Palestine Liberation Front.

The move against the Real IRA came as British authorities feared an upsurge in terrorist activity in mainland Britain ahead of the general election.

The group has been blamed for several recent bombings in London, including a massive blast at the BBC's London television studios in which one bystander was injured.

Unlike the IRA, which is under ceasefire and consequently not banned by the U.S., the Real IRA opposes the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on which the current peace process is based.

However, republican political party Sinn Fein -- the IRA's political arm -- says a ban will be counter-productive.

A Sinn Fein spokesman told CNN: "The U.S. is one of the mainstays of the Northern Ireland peace process and will no doubt continue to be so under President Bush, but it should concentrate on showing dissident republicans that the way forward is through politics.

"This kind of legislation has never stopped groups before, and outlawing an organisation could risk making it more attractive to young people."

Victor Barker, whose son James was among those killed in the Omagh explosion, told the Press Association news agency: "They are being banned because they are a terrorist organisation. Remember, they kill little children," he said.

The FTO designation came as the Irish Republic prepared to prosecute the Real IRA's alleged leader, Michael McKevitt.

He is charged with "directing terrorism" under a law that was enacted two weeks after the Omagh bombing. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Earlier on Wednesday, a failed mortar bomb attack on a British Army base in Northern Ireland, close to the Irish border, was suspected by security sources as probably being the work of the Real IRA. No one was hurt in the latest attack.

• US Department of State
• Northern Ireland Office

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