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N. Ireland police arrest four in fatal 1972 car-bomb attacks

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- Police arrested a Sinn Fein politician and three other people yesterday on suspicion of involvement in one of the Irish Republican Army's most notorious atrocities -- a 1972 triple car-bomb attack on a mostly Protestant village.

Six people were killed instantly and three others died later when the IRA detonated the bombs without warning in Claudy on July 31, 1972. The first car exploded outside McElhinney's pub and gas station, the second outside a hotel where police were evacuating residents.

A third car bomb exploded outside a post office after police had spotted it, but no one was killed.

Those slain were five Catholics and four Protestants, among them a 9-year-old girl and three teenagers.

Nobody ever was charged in connection with the attack.

Police, who reopened the investigation in 2002, said all four people arrested Tuesday -- men aged 50, 60 and 67, and a 58-year-old woman -- originally were questioned as suspects in 1972 but released without charge.

Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland, confirmed that police had arrested one of its officials, Francie Brolly, at his home in the mostly Catholic town of Dungiven. Brolly, a retired teacher best known locally as a traditional singer, was elected in 2003 to the province's long-mothballed local legislature.

''Sinn Fein are demanding the immediate release of Francie Brolly and we will be raising this issue with both the British and Irish governments," said Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, who admits he was deputy commander of the IRA in Londonderry in 1972.

The renewed investigation has already identified a dead Roman Catholic priest, James Chesney, as a leading suspect in the bombing. He died of cancer in 1980.

A founder of Northern Ireland's 1960s civil rights movement, Ivan Cooper, said he was told by senior IRA figures that Chesney commanded a Dungiven-based IRA unit responsible for bombing Claudy.

The IRA struck Claudy in apparent retaliation for the British Army's ''Operation Motorman," launched at dawn on July 31, 1972, to regain control of Catholic parts of Belfast and Londonderry that had been closed off by IRA road barricades since 1971.

Even if identified and convicted, the Claudy attackers would spend little time in prison. Under terms of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, more than 200 IRA prisoners won early paroles, and IRA members subsequently convicted of pre-1998 crimes also won speedy paroles.

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