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'Shoot-to-kill' a decades-old debate for British security forces

Associated Press Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland- When London police killed an innocent Brazilian in a hunt for suicide bombers, they reopened a "shoot-to-kill" debate that for decades haunted British efforts to combat the Irish Republican Army.

Throughout the 1980s, undercover police and soldiers repeatedly ambushed IRA units - and killed both unarmed IRA members and civilians in the process. Those events inspired decades of legal action and international criticism, particularly from Irish Americans, who argued that deadly force was not justified.

Then, as now, the questions bedeviling the British government and their security forces have been two. When is it defensible, legally and morally, to shoot a suspected terrorist? And what should the punishment be when an operation goes too far?

British authorities have denied ever sanctioning a "shoot-to-kill" policy in their campaign against the IRA, which killed 1,800 people and repeatedly bombed towns and cities in England and Northern Ireland before calling a cease-fire in 1997.

In about a dozen ambushes, British security forces exceeded their shooting rules in bitterly disputed circumstances that mirror Friday's slaying in London of Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old electrician.

While British troops targeted Irish guerrillas, Police have said the killing of Menezes was a tragic mistake, even though he was shot eight times on a London Underground carriage.

Another major difference is that today's al Qaida-inspired extremists appear willing to blow themselves up, while IRA members never intended to be suicide bombers.

Police say Menezes - on his way to work - died after officers followed him from a bloc of London apartments that were under surveillance as a suspected terrorist hideout.

Menezes was confronted by police, who chased him into a south London Tube station. It was unclear why he ran, but police killed him with point-blank shots to the head and chest, an unprecedented act in London.

In late 1982, an elite police unit in Northern Ireland mounted three ambushes that claimed the lives of three IRA men, two members of another anti-British gang called the Irish National Liberation Army, and a Catholic teenager.

The five militants were all unarmed when their cars were riddled with gunfire. Police defended their actions by claiming in court that the militants had tried to run over officers at road checkpoints.

Police killed the 17-year-old boy when he discovered an IRA arms dump being kept under police surveillance in a farm shed - and, allegedly, picked up a rifle out of curiosity.

Those killings provoked such a furor, including two external probes by English police officers, that the Northern Ireland police unit never mounted such operations again.

But the British army's elite Special Air Service mounted several brutally effective ambushes that involved covert SAS units watching IRA members. They opened fire, allegedly, only at the moment that an IRA member picked up a gun or committed another action that could threaten the lives of others.

The biggest ambush happened in October 1987, when an SAS unit acting on an informer tip-off surrounded a village police station that the IRA planned to bomb. The soldiers did allow the IRA unit to blow up the station, then obliterated all seven IRA men with more than 600 rounds of ammunition. They also killed an innocent Catholic civilian wrongly identified as part of the gang.

The SAS fueled an international furor in March 1988, when it trailed an IRA unit to the British territory of Gibraltar, and shot to death three IRA members at close range. All three had been planning a bomb attack on a British military parade but were unarmed when killed.

The SAS members defended their actions in court by claiming all three made threatening moves - either to grab a weapon or to trigger a bomb - in the split second before they were shot. Witnesses, however, claimed they saw two of the IRA members put their hands in the air before they were shot, while a third was "finished off" when lying on the ground.

The British army mounted its last lethal ambush in Northern Ireland in 1992, when four IRA men were gunned down after raking a police station with machine gun fire.


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