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Loyalist Militias Declare N. Irish Cease-Fire : Ulster: The move by mostly Protestant groups comes six weeks after IRA put down arms. London and Dublin welcome news.


LONDON — British loyalists in Northern Ireland announced a cease-fire Thursday, heralding a possible end to the politically inspired violence that has racked the province for 25 years.

The move, by largely Protestant paramilitary groups that want to keep British control in Northern Ireland, came six weeks after the outlawed Irish Republican Army announced its own cease-fire, which seemed to provide a serious platform for the peace process initiated by Britain and Ireland last December.

The latest cease-fire began at midnight Thursday.

British Prime Minister John Major declared the announcement "unalloyed good news." Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds said it marked "the dawn of a new era" and called on the British government to speed up the peace process.

The declaration was made in Belfast late Thursday by the Combined Loyalist Military Command and read by Gusty Spence, a former leader of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force who served a sentence for murder.

"The permanence of our cease-fire will be completely dependent upon the continued cessation of all nationalist-republican violence," the statement said. "The sole responsibility for a return to war lies with them.

"In the genuine hope that this peace will be permanent, we take the opportunity to pay homage to all our fighters, commandos and volunteers who have paid the supreme sacrifice. They did not die in vain. The union is safe."

The statement added: "In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict."

However, the cease-fire statement insisted that loyalists had "guarantees" of Northern Ireland's constitutional position in Britain, which the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein, have sought through violence to dislodge.

The British government has insisted that the fate of Northern Ireland be determined by a majority of the people in the province--rather than in the entire island of Ireland, which is what Sinn Fein and others seek.

Like the largely Roman Catholic IRA, the unionist paramilitaries--the Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Volunteer Force--made no mention Thursday of turning in weapons, ammunition or explosives.

The unionist militias are responsible for about one-third of the more than 3,100 deaths attributed to sectarian violence in the province.

The unionists had been under increasing pressure by moderate Protestant politicians to match the IRA's cease-fire and also from many militants--if only for the sake of public relations.

On Monday, British authorities permitted representatives of the unionist paramilitaries to visit paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland's Maze prison for terrorism offenses--to seek their approval to embark on the declared cease-fire.

On his recent U.S. tour, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, had noted that the IRA was observing a cease-fire while the unionist paramilitaries continued to shoot and bomb.

And Adams, in Canada on Thursday at the end of his tour, called on Major to "stop fumbling with this peace process" and to accelerate London's response. He said the British should "begin to demilitarize immediately" in Northern Ireland.

Major, attending the annual Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, said of the cease-fire: "It is extremely good news. A few months ago very few people would have imagined we would have been talking in a situation in which there is an IRA cease-fire and a loyalist paramilitary cease-fire with a genuine hope we may be able to move forward."

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