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IRA man charged with 1982 Hyde Park bombing

DUBLIN British prosecutors have charged a 61-year-old Irishman with the Irish Republican Army bombing of the queen's cavalry in Hyde Park in 1982, a strike at a top London tourist attraction that killed four soldiers and seven horses.

The Crown Prosecution Service said John Downey was arrested Sunday at Gatwick Airport south of London. He was arraigned Wednesday in a London court on four counts of murder and one count of conspiring to cause an explosion. He offered no plea, and spoke only to confirm his identity.

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The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party accused Britain of violating an agreement not to pursue Downey — who had been on a list of IRA suspects "on the run" from British investigators — and demanded his immediate release.

Sinn Fein official Gerry Kelly, who once led IRA car-bomb attacks on London, called the arrest "vindictive" and an act of "bad faith" that would fuel anger in Irish nationalist parts of Northern Ireland.

He said Downey had received a 2007 letter from Britain's Northern Ireland Office saying he was not wanted for questioning by any British police force, and had traveled to London many times since then.

Downey would be the third man to face trial for the July 20, 1982, twin bomb attacks on ceremonial troops performing in London, one of the most audacious operations ever mounted by the Provisional IRA.

The first bomb in Hyde Park was planted in a parked car and detonated by remote control as the mounted troops trotted toward Buckingham Palace, a daily tourist event. Investigators believed that an IRA member was in the park and triggered the bomb as the horses passed the car.

Two hours later, a time bomb packed into a suitcase that had been hidden inside a bandstand in nearby Regent's Park killed seven army musicians during a performance. Concertgoers said the musicians were blown high into the air, and one was impaled on the railing of an iron fence.

Both bombs combined mining explosives and nails. Twenty-two people, including a policeman and three civilians, were wounded.

In 1987 a Northern Ireland man, Danny McNamee, was convicted of conspiring to cause both blasts and received a 25-year sentence based on fingerprint evidence collected from remnants of a bomb. But judges in 1998 quashed the conviction, noting that prosecutors had withheld stronger forensic evidence of fingerprints implicating a senior IRA bomb-maker, Dessie Ellis.

Ellis today is a Sinn Fein lawmaker in Ireland's parliament in Dublin. He was extradited to Britain in 1990 to face charges of building both bombs, but he was acquitted on the grounds that he had already served eight years in prison for related charges in Ireland. Ellis had been convicted of possessing multiple power-timer units for IRA bombs, including those suspected of being used in the Hyde Park and Regent's Park blasts.

The double bombing represented one of the IRA's biggest killings of British troops, though much public attention focused instead on the fate of the horses. One died in the explosion and six maimed animals had to be shot at the scene. One horse that survived despite serious wounds, Sefton, became a nationally popular symbol of British defiance to the IRA.

The prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, vowed that the twin bombings were "committed by evil, brutal men who know nothing of democracy. We shall not rest until they are brought to justice."

Prosecutors did not explain why Downey, a native of County Donegal in northwest Ireland, was charged in connection with the Hyde Park bomb but not the Regent's Park one.

If convicted, Downey would face accelerated parole under terms of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord. That landmark 1998 pact paved the way for hundreds of Provisional IRA convicts to be freed from prison within two years.

"Clearly if John Downey had been arrested and convicted previously, he would have been released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement," Kelly said.

The Provisional IRA killed nearly 1,800 people during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The Provisionals officially disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, but IRA splinter groups still mount occasional bomb and gun attacks.