BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Police armed with a long list of names supplied by an informer once considered the Irish Republican Army's No. 2 man began a major manhunt today for 'the biggest terrorists' of Northern Ireland.
Dozens of IRA men went into hiding after 18 people, including three women, were arrested and questioned for terrorist crimes. They were implicated by Robert Lean, 37, formerly the IRA's No. 2 man in Belfast.
'He has named some of the biggest terrorists in Ireland, people we have been after for years but have never had enough evidence against,' said a senior official with the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Police said 15 terrorist suspects were being hunted but many IRA leaders went underground and others headed for the Irish border. Dublin's Special Branch set up patrols to catch those trying to slip into Ireland.
The IRA is fighting to drive the British army out of Ulster and unify the province with the Irish Republic.
Unconfirmed reports said Lean turned informer after anotherinformer, William Skelly, implicated him in the murder of a policeman. Skelly was charged last week, also with killing a policeman.
Lean has held a senior rank in the IRA since 1973 and police sources said he had identified leaders during the past 10 years in what could be a serious blow to the outlawed organization's hierarchy.
Police now have 30 informers in their hands. Their testmony has jailed 80 terrorists and 200 people await trial.
In a landmark trial just over a month ago, 22 people convicted on the evidence of a single IRA informer were sentenced to more than 4,000 years in jail.
Figures released Wednesday showed the impact of the informant system in Ulster.
Murders fell from 97 in 1982 to 43 so far this year. Only three British soldiers have been shot since January, compared with 21 for 1982. The number of suspects charged with terrorist crimes rose from 196 last year to 325. Bombings have dropped from over 200 last year to 138 this year.
The suspects held on Lean's testimony included key figures once connected to the IRA's military command but now with its political wing, Sinn Fein. Among them is Ivor Bell, 47, thought to have been a former Belfast brigade commander and IRA chief-of-staff for Ulster.
Lean was believed held in a British army barracks with his wife and five children, who were moved out of their Belfast home for fear of IRA reprisals.