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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IRA Starts to Destroy Its Weapons

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In a dramatic break with its armed history, the Irish Republican Army declared that it has started to dismantle the arsenal of weapons and bombs that sustained its decades-long war to try to evict the British from Northern Ireland.

Some 24 hours after the leaders of the IRA's political party, Sinn Fein, publicly urged the move, the clandestine guerrilla force said late Tuesday it was acting to rescue the Northern Ireland peace agreement from imminent collapse.

"Our motivation is clear," the statement said. "This unprecedented move is to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions."

The breakthrough action -- the most significant in the province since the peace agreement itself in April 1998 -- seemed to have that precise effect.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair talked of a "very significant milestone" and indicated Wednesday that the British government would tear down four key security installations in Northern Ireland.

Two watchtowers in the guerrilla heartland of south Armagh and two others would be taken down "logistically and physically as quickly as possible," a government spokesman said.

A high-profile British security presence, particularly in south Armagh, has long been a source of republican grievance.

Blair said the momentous announcement by the IRA would lead to further scaling back of a 13,500-strong military presence in the province.

"It requires us now to push on with trying to normalize the situation in Northern Ireland," he said.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader who last week pulled key Protestant members out of the home rule government, indicated that he was convinced that his men could now rejoin the government, in which they share power with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and other politicians representing the Catholic minority.

The IRA's move followed mounting pressure from Catholics in Ulster, from Ireland itself and from influential Irish-Americans. That pressure increased after the arrest of three IRA members caught meeting leftist rebels in Colombia in August and the new campaign against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

"We were told this day would never happen, and it has happened," Trimble said after meeting with the international panel charged with supervising disarmament of Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups. The IRA's about-face, he said, provided "evidence that there is a commitment by republicans to the full implementation of the agreement."

Trimble said General John de Chastelain of Canada, head of the disarmament panel, had told him he had personally witnessed the destruction of the IRA weapons and was assured that they could "never, ever be used again."

Trimble said the panel had a complete list of the neutralized weaponry and that the secret method of destruction was convincing. "It is much more than the concrete capping over of arms dumps that some have described," he said.

In his own terse four-paragraph report, de Chastelain said simply, "We have witnessed an event -- which we regard as significant -- in which the IRA has put a quantity of arms completely beyond use." He said the material included arms, ammunition and explosives, and he hinted that disarmament would continue, saying he would be in touch with IRA representatives in the future.

But one of the main Protestant militias, the Ulster Defense Association, announced it would not match the IRA disarmament move by handing in any of its own guns.

And a spokesman made clear there were renegade republican guerrillas who did not plan to lay down their arms.

"There are other sections of the Republican Army still opposing Britain's presence on the island [of Ireland]," said Joe Dillon of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which speaks for the Real IRA.

"They [the Real IRA] will no doubt pick up the mantle of being the IRA now and continue the challenge to Britain's occupation," he told BBC radio.

In Washington, President George W. Bush hailed what he called a "historic step by the IRA."

"The people of Northern Ireland are now measurably closer to the lasting peace which they richly deserve," Bush said.

(NYT, Reuters)