THE seizure of €4.3m worth of illegal cigarettes after an Al-Qaeda rocket blew the lid off an IRA smuggling racket has sparked a deadly new feud between rival Provo factions, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The cigarettes -- bound for a fake company, which does not exist, in Co Louth -- were uncovered after a container of cigarettes was struck by Islamic militants who targeted a huge cargo ship on the Suez Canal.
Sources have revealed that a south Armagh gang involved in the feud was involved in a consortium that put up money for the shipment, which was believed to be one of many organised by another IRA faction based in Co Louth.
The container was intercepted only by chance after several Al-Qaeda members in Egypt fired two rockets at one of the world's biggest ships, the Asia Cosco, back in July.
Inspectors who examined the container, which was marked as carrying furniture on the ship's manifest, discovered it was full of cigarettes on their way to a fake company listed in Co Louth.
Gardai and customs officials were notified and the illegal cargo was seized outside Dundalk in September.
Three suspects were arrested and later freed. A file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Sunday Independent has learned the gang behind the cigarette-smuggling is also involved in diesel-laundering in south Armagh, and had problems with a rival border Provo faction involved in the same illegal business.
Garda sources say tensions are growing in the Louth-Armagh border region as smuggling gangs are becoming increasingly rich and the overarching power of the former South Armagh Provisional IRA is on the wane.
The IRA has been on the retreat in the area since the October 2007 murder of 21-year-old Paul Quinn, who was brutally beaten to death by a gang of Provisional IRA members from south Armagh.
After the murder, the IRA was forced to stop its "punishment" beatings which it used to assert its total control over the Border area.
Gardai say several gangs are now openly defying the IRA and refusing to pay any "protection" to local Provo bosses.
Meanwhile, in a separate incident, another bitter dispute has erupted between the family of one of the leading IRA families in the Border area and other smugglers which has resulted in extensive damage to property.
The Sunday Independent has learned that a leading Sinn Fein figure, who is also a former leading IRA man, from outside the area was called in to mediate in the dispute two weeks ago. It is understood he ordered both sides to end the dispute.
Sources said that, in the past, the IRA would have settled the matter with extreme violence. But in the aftermath of the Quinn murder, it is afraid of attracting negative publicity.
The gangs who are openly defying the IRA include the one which murdered Det Garda Adrian Donohoe. This gang, with the exception of the suspected gunman who fled to the United States, continue to live openly in the south Armagh area. Sources said the gang continued to be involved in stealing and breaking cars for export.
The south Armagh area has remained largely lawless, mainly because the local IRA has refused to allow normal policing to come into place, despite Sinn Fein voting to support the PSNI five years ago.