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22 October 1998 Edition

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Increased British patrols in South Armagh

By Peadar Whelan

``There's no sign of a ceasefire in this area,'' said South Armagh farmer John Lenaghan.

``The British army are taking advantage of the situation and patrolling this area in a way they never did before. All I see is glossy promises from the British government but no real peace''.

John was angry at how his farm, which is overlooked by the massive British army spy-post at Drumuckavall in South Armagh, suffers saturation patrolling by British soldiers despite the IRA's cessation - now over a year old.

A week before we spoke to John British patrols, of up to 40 men, had roamed through John's land for over four hours, breaking down fences. On a neighbouring farm the British took over and occupied outhouses.

Farmers in the area are also worried about their livestock as British helicopters are constantly used to drop these patrols in. Animals, liable to panic, run away and get injured and despite stringent Department of Agriculture regulations imposed on the farming community to control TB, the British just walk across land and through fields with no regard for the livestock, thereby heightening the risk of spreading the infection.

A number of months ago farmer Henry McElroy from nearby Glassdrummond lost 12 lambs when pregnant sheep panicked as British army helicopters flew over his land.

``We're living in an open prison,'' said John Lenaghan, ``and I want to know when Mowlam and Blair are going to take down these spy-posts''.

To the north in Bessbrook, the busiest heliport in western Europe, the residents of the Acorn Hill/Carrick Vista estate are also living in an open prison. Although located just outside the village the British army decided two years ago, on 30 October 1996, to erect barriers and seal off High Street.

This tied Acorn Hill and Carrick Vista, an estate of about 150 homes and 1,000 men, women and children into the security network of Bessbrook Mill British army base.

``We're human shields,'' said one resident who added, ``despite assurances from a high ranking RUC officer that the security would be removed `within five minutes of any ceasefire' our civil rights have been taken from us, we are part of their military agenda''.

Damien Lennon lives in Bessbrook. He has been on the receiving end of an intense campaign of harassment by the crown forces. In the eight weeks up until we spoke Damien had collected 41 `gold cards' or PIC cards (identification cards issued on request by British patrols to people they detain).

One of the worst cases of harassment directed against Damien occurred at the start of the month when he was travelling through a British army checkpoint on Boiler Hill with his wife and child who is asthmatic.

While stopped Damien was questioned about the IRA cessation by a British soldier, one of a number wearing plainclothes who approached his car. This particular British army base is reported to station SAS soldiers.

During the incident Damien's child suffered an asthma attack, due to the stress, and his wife was prevented from going to the aid of the child and threatened with arrest.

``I am still stopped and harassed every time I leave my home. The situation here is as bad, if not worse, than it has ever been'', Damien said.

Then last week, within 48 hours of meeting Dublin Foreign minister David Andrews about the militarisation of the area, South Armagh Farmers and Residents were dealing with yet another heavy-handed military operation along the border.

Between 2 and 2.30pm last Thursday a British army spotter plane flew over the area, crossing the border at least six times and flying as low as 25 feet.

``So low'', said Toni Carragher of the SAFRC, ``that people on the ground clearly saw the surveillance equipment on its undercarriage''.

Ms Carragher was told by Gardai in Hackballscross that ``permission had been granted by the Department of Foreign Affairs for these overflights.

Initially the department said they had no record of permission for these flights having been granted, but late on Friday evening the department admitted that authorisation for the flights was indeed given.

These overflights were then followed by a full scale military operation as hundreds of British soldiers were dropped into the area at 5.20am. One Puma dropped its cargo of soldiers over the border near Hacksballscross. Throughout the morning a number of farms in the area were searched while cross border roads were blocked as the Gardai assisted the British.

Said Toni Carragher, ``given that the question of incursions was raised with David Andrews when we met last Tuesday we think it is scandalous that the Dublin government is still granting permission to the British army to overfly the area''.
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