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Colin Duffy, Top Irish Republican, Charged With Killing Soldiers

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LARNE, Northern Ireland — Police have strong forensic evidence linking a prominent Irish republican to the dissident IRA killings of two British soldiers this month, a senior detective testified Friday at the court arraignment of Colin Duffy.

Duffy, 41, offered no plea to two criminal counts of murder and five of attempted murder during his high-security appearance at the court in Larne, an overwhelmingly British Protestant town north of Belfast.

Dozens of relatives and friends from Duffy's hard-line Irish Catholic power base of Lurgan cheered and applauded as he was led from the courtroom _ handcuffed to a policeman and surrounded by a half-dozen other armed officers in flak jackets.

Outside the building, police scuffled with a crowd of militant Protestant men shouting anti-IRA insults as Duffy was driven off in an unmarked police car with darkened windows. "Murdering scum!" shouted one man who tried to punch the windows of the passing car.

Duffy had been held for police interrogation since March 14, a week after two masked men with assault rifles fired more than 60 rounds at three off-duty, unarmed soldiers collecting pizzas from two Domino's Pizza delivery men outside their base. Two soldiers died and four people were wounded, including both pizza couriers.

Duffy became the first person charged in connection with the March 7 shooting _ the first deadly attack on British soldiers in Northern Ireland since 1997, the year that the outlawed Irish Republican Army called a lasting cease-fire. The Real IRA, a splinter group opposed to Northern Ireland's peace process, claimed responsibility.

Police long have branded Duffy the leading Irish republican on the Catholic north side of Lurgan, southwest of Belfast, which in recent years has become a power base for IRA dissidents.

He publicly broke away after leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most of the Catholic minority, recognized the authority of the Northern Ireland police force as part of its 2007 agreement to form a power-sharing government with Protestants.

Duffy twice was charged with IRA killings in the town _ the 1993 shooting of a former soldier and the 1997 double slaying of policemen on foot patrol _ but won acquittals both times after key witness evidence against him crumbled. Protestant extremists assassinated his lawyer in 1999.

This time, a senior policeman testified Friday, detectives have found Duffy's full DNA profile inside the gunmen's getaway car. He said a witness and closed-circuit television footage would demonstrate that the attackers used this car to escape after riddling the entrance to the Massereene army base.

Detective Chief Inspector Jeffrey Smyth said forensic officers had identified Duffy's DNA inside the tip of a Latex glove left inside the car _ which the gunmen had tried, but failed, to set on fire to destroy forensic evidence inside.

Typically, veteran IRA units wear surgical gloves during attacks and burn the gloves and the other clothes they were wearing inside their getaway vehicle, to guard against leaving forensic clues.

Smyth said forensic scientists would be able to show that the human DNA inside the glove was definitely from Duffy.

"This is not trace elements. This is a full DNA profile," he said.

Smyth said Duffy had not spoken during 13 days in custody, except to deny involvement in the attack.

Two other suspected IRA dissidents _ a 17-year-old boy and a 37-year-old former Sinn Fein politician _ have already been charged with this month's other dissident murder, when a policeman was fatally shot through the back of the head. A different breakaway faction, the Continuity IRA, admitted responsibility for that attack.

Larne District Judge Robert Alcorn denied Duffy's request for bail and set his next court date for April 21.

Earlier this week Northern Ireland's senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Brian Kerr, ordered Duffy and five other suspected IRA dissidents to be freed from police custody because a lower-level judge had not handled the extension of their detentions legally. While the other five went free Wednesday, Duffy was immediately rearrested.

Police braced for potential trouble Friday night in the Catholic Kilwilkie district of Lurgan, where dozens of masked youths rioted March 14 following Duffy's arrest.

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