Four West Belfast men have been charged with causing grievous bodily harm during an alleged attempted abduction in the city on Friday night, but none were charged with membership of the IRA.

The victim, Bobby Tohill, has claimed that members of the mainstream Provisional IRA dragged him out of a Belfast city centre bar and intended to kill him.

Sinn Fein spokespersons have said there should be "no rush to judgement" of the incident, which has created a fresh storm for the troubled political process.

A number of masked men armed with batons were said to have suddenly seized the prominent dissident from the busy Kelly's Cellars bar in Belfast city centre and bundled him into a van.

The van was stopped when it was met by a police PSNI vehicle in nearby Castle Street.

Four men in the van were arrested, and the injured Mr Tohill was hospitalised.

The PSNI claimed the arrests had been made by uniformed police who had simply responded to a call from the bar.

There was widespread disbelief among ordinary republicans that the mainstream IRA would mount such a high-risk raid at a busy pub. Some suggested that agents provocateurs intent on damaging republicanism might have been behind the incident.

The IRA have made no statement on the matter.

Mr Tohill said he had recently received a number of death threats from the mainstream IRA. If the PSNI had not rammed the van, he would be dead.

He told the Sunday World newspaper yesterday: "I'm convinced the IRA were going to kill me. They told me so.

"It was the Provos. They told me they were taking me to the border to torture and execute me.

"They told me I was going to be killed. That's why I fought for so long. In the end they had to spray some sort of gas in my face to take me down. It knocked me out. That's how they managed to get me in the back of the van.

"I have never experienced fear like it in my life. Nothing could prepare me for it. I didn't know what hit me."

Mr Tohill suffered head injuries which required 98 stitches to his head at the Royal Victoria Hospital, but later released himself from hospital and his whereabouts are unknown.

A former INLA political prisoner and a former member of the IRA, Mr Tohill is a prominent dissident opposed to the peace process. He recently denied involvement in the August 2003 murder of father-of-six Danny McGurk, which was blamed on the dissident 'Real IRA'.

In the High Court in Belfast today, Liam Rainey, Gerard McCrory, Harry Fitzsimmons, and Thomas Tolan, all in their thirties from west Belfast, were charged causing grievous bodily harm and unlawful imprisonment.

The court also heard they allegedly possessed disposable clothing, pepper spray and metal cudgels when they were arrested in the van.

All four men were remanded in custody until March 22 but their lawyer indicated they would be applying for High Court bail.

On Saturday, PSNI police chief Hugh Orde insisted the men were members of the Provisional IRA.

Mr Orde said: "We are very clear on this. I met with my senior commanders last night, and I met them again this morning and I am very clear that this was a PIRA operation."

Sinn Fein President Mr Adams said yesterday: "There have been such claims about the IRA before. They have proven to be without foundation.

"But Hugh Orde's speedy allegation follows a pattern going back to the old RUC which was also quick to point the finger at republicans while turning a blind eye to others."

Marion Price, an activist on behalf of dissident republican prisoners, called on Mr Adams to "come clean" about the incident.

She added: "I would like to hear what Mr Adams has to say about one of his constituents being abducted and beaten.

"I know that Mr Tohill has been a lifelong republican, and is opposed to the current Sinn Fein peace strategy.

"Mr Adams is very quick to condemn the activities of so-called dissident republicans - I wonder will he condemn this."

The West Belfast MP did not refer to Mr Tohill, but called for those arrested to be allowed their legal rights.

"What value the rights of those arrested? What chance that they will receive a fair hearing?

"There has also been an unholy haste by a range of politicians eager to seize upon Hugh Orde's statement and an eagerness by sections of the media to repeat his allegation without question or to embroider it. All of those involved need to catch themselves on."

Mr Adams added that the threat to the peace process did not come from republicans but from others "including those who have failed or refuse to make politics work".

"Whatever the truth behind Friday night's incident Sinn Fein will not be made a whipping boy especially by those who have no interest in making this process work," he said.

"Our position is clear. Last October I reiterated our commitment to democratic and peaceful politics. I also pointed to a peaceful direction for all republicans to follow. That remains my position and the endeavour and the focus of Sinn Fein."

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