BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- One of the two IRA fighters killed in a premature bomb explosion two days ago headed a most-wanted-terrorist list and was suspected in at least 25 killings, police sources said Wednesday.
The sources identified the dead man as Brendan Burns, 33, wanted in a 1979 bombing that killed 18 soldiers near the border with Ireland on the same day the Irish Republican Army killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth's uncle. The bombing was the bloodiest single blow to British troops in Northern Ireland.
Burns, identified as one of the IRA's 'master bombers,' and another IRA man, Brendan Moley, 30, were killed instantly Monday, police sources said.
The 300-pound bomb they were preparing blew up, wrecking their van and ripping apart a nearby barn near the mostly Catholic village of Crossmaglen, 60 miles south of Belfast.
Police sources indicated the men may have been planning to blow up a new British Army observation post monitoring traffic in the area of Crossmaglen, the IRA's stongest base of support in the border region, nicknamed 'bandit country' by British soldiers because of the high frequency of IRA attacks.
The blast was so powerful it took police several hours to determine how many people were killed.
The IRA -- fighting to end British rule in mostly Protestant Northern Ireland so it can be united with the Catholic Irish Republic - issued a statement, saying the two had died 'on active service in an unfortunate accident.'
Police said Burns, who headed their fugitive list, was wanted in the 1979 killings of the 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint, 50 miles south of Belfast.
They also said he was suspected of killing five soldiers in a land-mine explosion in southern Armagh County two years later and in the car-bomb slaying of Northern Ireland's No. 2 judge and his wife as they crossed the border last April.
Northern Irish Police Chief Sir John Hermon has warned repeatedly that the IRA had planned to launch a new offensive with 150 tons of Libyan-supplied weapons smuggled into Ireland over the last three years. Sources said Burns was believed assigned to lead the campaign in the border region.
Burns was arrested in the Irish Republic in 1983 for IRA membership and jailed for two years. Police in Northern Ireland sought his extradition, but he was freed by the Dublin High Court on a technicality, remaining a fugitive ever since.
Moley had been questioned repeatedly by police in the north about suspected terrorism but police were never able to pin down charges on him, police sources said.