BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – The Irish Republican Army insisted Saturday that a Belfast mother of 10 it abducted, killed and secretly buried in 1972 was a British army agent and therefore a legitimate target.

The IRA statement came a day after Northern Ireland’s police complaints official, Nuala O’Loan, said her detectives found no evidence that widow Jean McConville ever worked as an informer for either the police or British army.

The McConville case is among the most bitterly debated and emotive episodes from the Northern Ireland conflict. Masked men abducted the 37-year-old from her home in front of her children, who were placed into different foster homes when she never returned.

The IRA refused to admit responsibility for killing her until 1999 when, in response to a five-year campaign waged by one of McConville’s daughters, the outlawed group promised to identify the spots where it buried her.

The IRA pinpointed a beach in the Irish Republic as McConville’s resting place, but extensive digging in 1999 and 2000 failed to find her remains. A man walking his dog along cliffs near the beach stumbled across McConville’s partly unearthed grave in August 2003.

McConville’s children say she was targeted for revenge after an act of simple Christian charity, when she went to the aid of a British soldier whom the IRA had shot near the front door of her home. The soldier died.

In its statement, the IRA made no reference to that event but insisted the group had made a “thorough investigation” of its reasons for killing McConville and said she “was working as an informer for the British army.”

The IRA said its representative had told this to one of McConville’s sons.

“The IRA accepts that he rejects this conclusion,” the group said.

On Friday, O’Loan – who normally investigates complaints against the police – said her detectives had combed through security-forces records on agents and informers but found nothing to suggest McConville was spying. She said her office had undertaken this investigation at the request of McConville’s children.

“We are absolutely positive that she wasn’t an informant,” O’Loan said.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, who admits he was an IRA commander in 1972, said he had no way of knowing whether McConville was an informer.

But Mark Durkan, leader of Sinn Fein’s moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, said the IRA had a record of branding its innocent victims as informers – and of missing high-ranking informers within its own ranks.

Durkan noted that over the past three years, two senior officials – former Sinn Fein legislative chief Denis Donaldson and Freddie “Stakeknife” Scappaticci, the alleged former director of the IRA unit responsible for identifying, interrogating and killing informers – both were exposed as British agents.

“This is the same IRA whose intelligence and investigations did not know about ‘Stakeknife’ or Denis Donaldson,” Durkan said. “So no real credibility will be attached to their continued attempts to malign the memory of Jean McConville.”

AP-ES-07-08-06 1430EDT

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