The Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams yesterday warned the government not to blame republicans for the break-in at Castlereagh police station as the row over missing files on informers threatened to destabilise the peace process.
Speaking at a rally in north Belfast to commemorate the 1916 Easter uprising, the MP for West Belfast denounced continuing searches of homes in republican areas of the city and the arrest of six people - including the Provisional IRA's director of intelligence.
With many politicians away for Easter and others exercising caution until anyone has been charged, the full ramifications of the Castlereagh affair have yet to be felt. The break-in on March 17, St Patrick's Day, was initially thought to be an inside job carried out by rogue police or military intelligence officers.
Dawn raids on Saturday by police and soldiers at 12 addresses in Belfast and Derry opened a radically different line of investigation, revealing the security forces' belief that the break-in was carried out by republican paramilitaries.
Castlereagh police station in east Belfast, once the main interrogation centre for para military suspects, houses the headquarters of special branch. The break-in by several men, who wore neither gloves nor masks, specifically targeted an office used by the source handling unit, which deals with security force informers and their special branch handlers.
As police and soldiers yesterday carried out further searches in the predominantly republican Poleglass area of the city, Mr Adams accused the Northern Ireland secretary of exploiting the affair.
"Let's make it clear to John Reid and anyone else who's listening," he told a Sinn Fein rally. "Republicans will not be scapegoated and will not accept responsibility for the working out of the British agenda."
Earlier, Alex Maskey, the assembly member for West Belfast, said suggestions that republicans were involved insulted people's intelligence. "This can only be described as provocation and demonstrates beyond doubt that absolutely nothing has changed with regard to policing."
The wave of arrests, he added, proved that there had been no change in policing practices. Taunting the rival SDLP, he said: "Nationalists throughout the country will undoubtedly be interested in learning their position in relation to the ongoing raids."
The possibility that the break-in was the work of the IRA, which is on ceasefire, infuriated the Democratic Unionist assembly member Ian Paisley Jr. "The raid was embarrassing enough but if the IRA was behind it then it is all the more damaging. You have to ask how were they able to do this?" he said.
"We cannot have another situation like we had with the arrest of the three republicans last summer in Colombia. Sinn Fein ought to own up if they are involved in this raid."
Two investigations into the break-in are under way. One is the police investigation led by Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Wright, the most senior detective in Belfast. The other is an inquiry headed by the former Northern Ireland Office senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot. By late yesterday five of the six people arrested - including Bobby Storey, the IRA's director of intelligence - had been released without charge. A sixth man was still being questioned.
Security forces believe the files were possibly taken to discredit special branch and have already been taken to the Irish republic. The police have insisted that names of informers cannot be identified from the stolen documents.
· Loyalists posing as Glasgow Celtic supporters were last night being hunted by police after attacks in north Belfast. As bitterly contested parades were taking place in the city, a 17-year-old youth was stabbed three times in the head after being confronted by a Protestant gang.