By Ian Graham
LISBURN, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - Seven Irish nationalists have been charged in Northern Ireland of involvement in militant activity, three under a rarely used law against "directing terrorism," in one of the highest profile roundups of its kind in the province in recent years.
Five were charged on Friday and two more on Saturday of offences including conspiracy to murder and cause explosions and the preparation of terrorist acts, police said, following a joint operation with security services.
Three men appeared in a court in Lisburn near Belfast on Saturday, flanked by a dozen armed police in riot gear, to hear the charges.
Two were brothers of prominent Lurgan republican Colin Duffy who was acquitted earlier this year of an attack by militant group the Real IRA on the army's Massereene Barracks in Antrim three years ago. The third man was Duffy's cousin.
The Real IRA is one of several groups opposed to the 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of tit-for-tat killings between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists opposed to British rule of Northern Ireland, and predominantly Protestant unionists who wanted it to continue.
Sporadic gun and bomb attacks by dissident Irish nationalist groups aimed mainly at security forces have intensified in the past couple of years.
In April, police found a "significant" bomb near the main Dublin-to-Belfast motorway, and a bomb was found under the car of a policeman's parents, the latest in a spate of attempted attacks on Catholic officers and their families.
The Real IRA claimed responsibility for the murder of two soldiers in a gun attack on Massereene Barracks three years ago during one of the worst weeks of violence in recent years.
In January, 46-year-old Brian Shivers was jailed for a minimum of 25 years for the murders but Colin Duffy, 44, walked free.
His brother Paul Duffy, 47, was one of the men charged on Saturday with "directing terrorism," a charge often leveled against groups suspected of involvement in international terrorism, but rarely used in Northern Ireland.
Two of four suspects arrested in Tyrone and Londonderry last weekend have also been charged with directing terrorism. All four are due in court later on Saturday.
Colin Duffy was in court on Saturday with several dozen family members and supporters. A lawyer representing the three men said their family was being persecuted by the police.
(Reporting by Ian Graham; Editing by Conor Humphries and Sophie Hares)