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British vacate key base in N. Ireland

Troops leave Bessbrook Mill, the last to pull out from borderland known as IRA `bandit country.'

June 26, 2007|From the Associated Press

DUBLIN, IRELAND — The final British troops withdrew Monday from the Northern Ireland borderland long known as "bandit country," ending a 37-year mission to keep watch over the Irish Republican Army's most dangerous power base.

Soldiers left Bessbrook Mill in what their commander, Col. Wayne Harber, called a final act in "the longest military campaign in the army's history."

The overall commander of the remaining 5,600 troops in Northern Ireland, Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, said the threat posed by IRA dissident groups no longer required "large numbers of troops based in bases around the country."

In 1970, British soldiers converted the 19th century stone mill into a fortress.

Bessbrook Mill became the launching pad for helicopter-borne operations throughout South Armagh, a predominantly Roman Catholic region midway between Belfast and Dublin dubbed "bandit country."

The official closure of Bessbrook Mill, for decades the busiest heliport in Europe, reflects recent progress in the British province's 14-year-old peace process.

In a court case linked to the conflict, British state prosecutors said Monday that no former soldiers or police would face trial over the 1989 assassination of a top Belfast lawyer who specialized in defending IRA clients.

Patrick Finucane, 38, was shot 14 times in his home in front of his wife and children by members of an outlawed Protestant group, the Ulster Defense Assn.

Pamela Atchison, assistant director of the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast, said prosecutors had spent years considering whether to bring murder and lesser charges against former members of the British army's Force Research Unit and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, both now disbanded.

She said key witnesses had been killed or otherwise died.

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