Serious threat in N Ireland
Belfast - The threat posed by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland is the highest it has been in six years, a paramilitary watchdog said on Wednesday.
Dissident organisations now pose a "very serious" threat to peace in the long-troubled British province, said the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), which reports every six months to the London and Dublin governments.
The report comes at a tense time for Northern Ireland, which the main Protestant and Catholic parties split over when justice and policing powers should be devolved from London to their shared Belfast administration.
Northern Ireland has been largely peaceful since 1998 peace accords between the Protestant and Catholic communities.
But the killing of two British soldiers and a police officer in March - the first of their kind in about a decade - has highlighted the renewed threat.
The Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA) splinter group claimed the police murder, while the Real IRA (RIRA) was behind the soldiers' deaths. Both groups are opposed to the peace process.
"Our detailed analysis of the activities of CIRA and RIRA shows that during the period under review the threat was very serious," the IMC said in its review of the six months from March to August.
"The overall level of dissident activity was markedly higher than we have seen since we first met in late 2003."
"The seriousness, range and tempo of their activities all changed for the worse in these six months."
"During this period dissident republicans were violent and showed an intent to kill if the opportunity arose. The three murders in March were by far the most serious incidents but there were many others involving extreme ruthlessness."
Catholic Republicans want Northern Ireland integrated into the Republic of Ireland, while Protestant Unionists favour it remaining part of the United Kingdom.
At least 3 500 people were killed during the conflict fought by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant paramilitary groups.