A FORMER Provisional IRA leader was questioned after gardai and PSNI officers in helicopters swooped on his home in one of the biggest ever crackdowns on suspected cross-border fuel laundering.
More than 300 members of the gardai, PSNI, Revenue, northern Customs and Excise, the Defence Forces and the British Army were involved in the raid, which centred on the suspected fuel laundering activities of former IRA chief of staff Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.
His home, six feet inside the Republic, was surrounded by personnel, many of whom arrived in Air Corps and British Army helicopters.
Murphy, who had a fall-out with the Provos after the peace process, drove off from his home at Ballybinaby, Co Louth, as the search teams arrived at 5am.
He was stopped and questioned at an outer security cordon that had been put in place at 4am, but was not arrested.
Agencies led by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and northern Customs raided 22 premises in 11 counties – Louth, Armagh, Monaghan, Dublin, Kildare, Waterford, Offaly, Roscommon, Westmeath, Meath and Tipperary.
Murphy's house and outbuildings were searched yesterday during "Operation Loft".
The home of a petrol retailer and the offices of an international transport company were among the premises raided.
A large number of files, computers and discs were seized during the raids. More than two dozen bank accounts have been frozen and cash has been seized.
Security sources believe they have uncovered one of the country's biggest laundered fuel operations, costing the exchequers north and south of the Border millions in lost revenue each year.
Yesterday's raids came after months of investigations by the Criminal Assets Bureau assisted by Customs and Excise in the North.
A security source said: "Murphy jumped into his car and drove away from his house when officers arrived.
"There was always a danger he would be alerted by the helicopters, and that's why a second cordon was put in place."
Murphy refused to say anything when he was questioned.
"We are confident enough evidence has been gathered to bring a case before the courts," added the source.
A separate case against Murphy, who has always denied his Provo role, is due to be mentioned at the non-jury Special Criminal Court in Dublin later this month.
He faces nine allegations of failing to file income tax returns between 1996 and 2004.
Murphy (60) is taking a Supreme Court case in an effort to have the case against him heard before a jury.
Yesterday's operations also focused on two associates.
The Irish Independent has learnt that CAB investigators have uncovered several bank accounts in bogus names as a result of the inquiry.
"This investigation has been ongoing for several years," said one source.
"It is like a jigsaw, and the final pieces in that puzzle are being put in place."
A garda spokesman said: "The objectives of the operation are to seize evidence of assets deriving from oil fraud and money laundering, seize and dismantle illegal oil operations, seize cash or other assets including vehicles used in the criminal activity and freeze bank accounts."
The spokesman also confirmed that a large quantity of cash was discovered at two locations that were searched.
A fuel laundry, with initial analysis indicating that it has the capacity to launder several hundred thousand litres of diesel, was also discovered.
Gardai said the plant had potential throughput of 10 million litres a year, which equates as a loss to the exchequer in the Republic of €5.5m.
A senior garda source said the illegal fuel business was "the centre of all the activity – the command and control centre – and all the tentacles of the supply chain spread out from there".
"This is about following a money trail, and we are talking about serious money here," the source said. "There are tens of millions slushing around the place."
While the mission was deemed a success, gardai believe they have not fully dismantled the country's biggest illegal fuel network.
"We have disrupted it, we have hindered it, but we don't believe we have fully closed it down.
"These are cunning, ruthless individuals who have been at this a long time.
More than 40,000 litres of laundered fuel were found at the site, as were 150 bags of an agent called Bleaching Earth, which is used to remove dyes from agricultural diesel.
In addition, 16 tanks each containing 1,000 litres of toxic sludge – the waste product resulting from the laundering process – and a 40-foot container were recovered.
The garda spokesman added: "The Criminal Assets Bureau has also frozen in excess of 25 bank accounts suspected to be linked to this operation."