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Europe's most sophisticated criminals

The Provisional IRA has forged an alliance with a network of criminal gangs on the British mainland in a multi-million pound cigarette and fuel smuggling racket, it was claimed yesterday. A former head of the Special Branch in Belfast said links were built while IRA members and British gangsters were in high-security jails. The BBC reported allegations that the IRA was involved in the laundering of hundreds of millions of pounds, some of which was reinvested in elaborate schemes to bring illicit fuel and tobacco into the UK. Ian Pearson, the Northern Ireland security minister, told BBC Radio 4's File On Four that the Provisionals were now "perhaps the most sophisticated organised criminal grouping to be found anywhere in Europe, possibly anywhere in the world".

The report comes as the IRA is under pressure over its alleged involvement in crime, from the 26 million Northern Bank raid in Belfast to money-laundering in the Republic of Ireland and the murder of Robert McCartney. File On Four quoted police and Customs sources on both sides of the Irish border as saying that the Provisionals were involved in a "significant percentage" of cigarette and fuel smuggling in the UK, much of it originating in south Armagh. The IRA use some of Britain's criminal gangs as a distribution network for tobacco on which no duty has been paid, it was claimed. And they employ expert techniques to "launder" fuel on an industrial scale, removing the marker dyes from low-tax diesel intended for agricultural or central-heating use, in order to allow it to be used illicitly by road vehicles. Irish Customs last month intercepted fuel tankers bound for Liverpool from Dublin docks that had been disguised as trailers carrying timber in order to conceal their illegal cargo, the programme reported.

It is believed that almost five million litres of fuel are being sent across the Irish Sea by one IRA group alone. Meanwhile, a bureau de change allegedly controlled by the Provos near the border had banked 250 million in suspect cash, some of which was used as "venture capital" to fund criminal activities. Paper trails linked the cash to criminals around the world believed to be involved in cigarette smuggling, it was reported.


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