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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Britain Scales Back Soldiers in Belfast

BELFAST -- Britain announced on Thursday a partial withdrawal of its troops from the streets of Belfast for the first time in 25 bloody years because of cease-fires by the Irish Republican Army and its Loyalist foes.

Northern Ireland Royal Ulster Constabulary police chief Sir Hugh Annesley said troops who have protected police for a quarter of a century would stop patrols in daylight hours beginning Sunday.

Annesley made his announcement five months after rival IRA and pro-British Loyalist guerrillas declared cease-fires.

The conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives throughout the British-ruled province.

"In furtherance of this, and in consultation with the (Army) General Officer Commanding, it has been decided, with effect from next Sunday that the Army will no longer act in support of the RUC on the streets of the Greater Belfast area during daylight hours," Annesley said.

It was the first major reduction in the blanket security presence across the province since the twin cease-fires launched the British province into an unprecedented era of peace.

A total of 648 soldiers, about 200 of them locally recruited, have been killed over the past 25 years, mainly by Irish Republicans fighting to reverse British partition of Northern Ireland for a Protestant majority seven decades ago.

The announcement was made as Britain held a second round of talks with political groups close to Loyalist gunmen who have fought for more than two decades to keep the province British and thwart the IRA's goal of reunification with Ireland.

Annesley said the measure would only apply in daylight hours and the RUC chief made clear that the 18,000 British troops, first drafted into the province when law and order broke down in 1969, would remain stationed there.

"They are not being removed from the province," Annesley said.

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, had demanded a withdrawal of all British troops as part of an overall "demilitarization" of the political and sectarian conflict.

But Britain has ruled out any total withdrawal until the truce turns into a permanent peaceful settlement.

The British Government is pursuing such an agreement in concert with the Dublin government.

Until now soldiers have continued to patrol staunchly Roman Catholic areas of Belfast, where the Irish Republican Army has drawn support for its bitter 25-year war against British rule.

Troops have been off the streets completely in Londonderry, the province's mainly Catholic second city, for nearly three months.

The RUC has dismantled roadblocks, although controversial "spy" watchtower installations remain, notably along the border.