Detectives open mammoth probe in Northern Ireland

A special team of detectives announced Friday they will travel back to the very start of Northern Ireland's conflict 37 years ago to investigate more than 3,200 killings in this long-disputed British territory. Dave Cox, commander of the new 84-member Historical Enquiries Team, said his detectives would reopen files Monday on the first 100 unresolved killings starting with the case of Samuel Devenney, a 42-year-old Catholic fatally clubbed by police officers in his Londonderry home in April 1969. The British and Irish governments and most Northern Ireland parties welcomed the move as providing an essential support for the province's 1998 peace accord. However, that landmark deal, which granted a prison amnesty for all convicted members of truce-observing groups, means that nobody caught by the new probe will spend a day behind bars.

Cox said the key aim was to find the truth, if possible, for the relatives of 3,268 people killed in political and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998. Of those cases, he said, more than 2,000 remain completely unsolved, while the rest involve suspects who were not arrested or charged.

The project, announced in March 2005, has been given a budget of 31.6 million pounds (Ђ46 million or US$55 million) and its own headquarters near Sprucefield, a shopping mall southwest of Belfast.

Cox, a former deputy commander of London's Metropolitan Police, has assembled a team of current and retired detectives from throughout the United Kingdom: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, detectives exclusively from outside Northern Ireland will lead probes into about 50 killings committed by the province's police. In all cases, Cox said, his team would discuss their findings with each victim's family to see whether they wanted suspects, if identified, to be charged with murder.

"I do not for a moment underestimate the complexity of this challenge or the potential emotional stress for relatives associated with revisiting these tragic events," Cox said. "That is why families will sit at the very heart of our investigations, and that is why our primary objective will be to work with them to achieve some measure of resolution for them." Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said his government "is committed to addressing unanswered questions for as many families of victims as possible." He said identifying killers, and in some cases convicting them before their automatic parole, would allow victims "to reach some understanding and closure on the past", reports the AP. N.U.