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7 March 2002 Edition

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Cowen sends ambassador to Colombia amid poison fears

Lawyers for the three Irishmen facing charges in Colombia have requested the International Red Cross to carry out independent blood tests on the men because of fears of poison in their food.

The Irish Ambassador to Colombia, Art Agnew was due to visit Jim Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley on Tuesday, amid growing concern for their safety.

Representatives of the Bring Them Home campaign had met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen, the previous week and raised concerns about the safety of the men.

Speaking on Monday, spokesperson for the campaign Caitriona Ruane said: "We requested that the minister intervene urgently to safeguard the men's safety and right to fair trial. We are concerned that the three men are in separate cells, each of them sharing with leading drug dealers. Five weeks ago, when we returned from Colombia, we raised these concerns with the Irish government and called for their intervention. Minister Cowen informed us that he has sent the Irish ambassador, currently based in Mexico, to visit the three men, their lawyers and government authorities.

"The collapse of the Colombian peace process has heightened tension within the prisons, where pro- and anti-government forces regularly clash. There were 617 murders in Colombian prisons last year.

"Niall Connolly rang his family on Friday and informed them that he was warned that their food may be poisoned. I immediately contacted their lawyers, who requested that the International Red Cross carry out an independent blood test on the three men. The Irish ambassador will visit the men tomorrow afternoon in La Picota and in the evening meet with the lawyers. We have no confidence in the Colombian prison authorities taking this test. It is important that it is an independent international agency carrying it out."

Meanwhile, the families are to ask Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to raise the men's safety and other concerns with President George Bush when the two meet on 14 March.

"Jim, Niall and Martin have been moved seven times in seven months because there is no safe place for them to be held in Colombia," said Madeleine Connolly, mother of Niall Connolly. "The escalation of the civil war has made it more dangerous for them. We are appealing to Mr Ahern to talk to President Bush and request their return home to their families."
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