Britain battles it out in N. Ireland. Ambush of IRA members may signal tougher security

Britain is taking strong steps to combat the upsurge of violence by the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Advisers to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say they want to keep the Irish Republican Army (IRA) guessing, and hence would not comment on a series of security meetings this past week. But officials in Britain's province of Northern Ireland and in London have indicated no options were being ruled out.

Last week, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King said that planned new measures ``would become apparent shortly in certain particular ways.'' He did not elaborate.

The first apparent sign of a tough new policy came yesterday, with reports that three armed IRA members were ambushed and killed by security forces in Northern Ireland Tuesday night. The incident occurred about 10 miles from the scene of a coach-bomb attack which caused the deaths of eight British soldiers 11 days earlier.

The government refused to say whether the shootings constituted a new security policy. But it is widely assumed here that the action was carried out by members of the Special Air Services (SAS), Britain's highly trained commando force. And in a statement Wednesday, the IRA said the three slain men were ``on active service.''

In the past two days signs of IRA activity have been evident.

On Wednesday, West German officials caught two suspected IRA guerrillas who were coming across the border from the Netherlands. The armed pair was apprehended around midnight near a British air base.

And in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry, the IRA yesterday took responsibility for an accidental bomb explosion in an apartment. Two people were killed in the blast which, the IRA said, had been intended for British soldiers checking houses in the area.

There is concern over the upsurge in IRA violence that, so far this year, has claimed the lives of 27 members of the British security forces in attacks ranging from Northern Ireland, to mainland Britain and continental Europe.

Hard-line ``unionists'' (those who want Northern Ireland to stay part of Britain) have called on Britain to institute tougher security measures. (The IRA is fighting to end British rule of Northern Ireland, with the aim of uniting it with the largely Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland.)

But moves to do so usually spark intense debate here over the legality of such measures.

In March this year, SAS men staged a surprise attack on three suspected IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. There was harsh criticism of the operation in the British Parliament over whether the suspects were given a fair chance to surrender before being shot.

In 1982 the Royal Ulster Constabulary was accused of adopting a shoot-to-kill policy, and this led to lengthy debate about how best to control anti-IRA activities by the security forces.

One issue currently being debated here has been whether to reintroduce the policy of internment without trial as a way of getting a grip on terrorism.

The prime minister's advisers have reportedly cautioned her that such a move would be counterproductive, encouraging Catholics to further sympathize with or join the IRA.

Mr. King has been urged by Unionists to consider denying IRA suspects the right to remain silent under questioning.

Referring to Tuesday's attack, one security source spoke of an ``eye for an eye policy'' and said that the SAS was the government's most effective weapon in attempts to regain the security initiative in Northern Ireland.

Officially there are no more than 100 SAS men in the province at any one time, though their numbers may have been augmented in recent weeks.

The incident bore the marks of a typical SAS operation: The IRA men, all known militants, drove into an ambush. Minutes afterward, according to eyewitness accounts, an Army helicopter swooped down and lifted up four men wearing plain clothes and believed to be SAS personnel. It was reported that one of the dead men had been questioned after last month's coach bomb attack and later released.

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