IRA begins disarming
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The paramilitary Irish Republican Army has issued a statement saying it is starting to decommission its weapons.
The announcement came almost exactly 24 hours after the republican Sinn Fein party -- which is closely associated to the IRA -- urged them to make a groundbreaking move and begin disarming.
The IRA statement released on Tuesday said: "This unprecedented move is to save the peace process."
The move was confirmed in a statement from the head of the disarmament commission, General John de Chastelain, who said: "A quantity of arms have been put beyond use. It includes arms, ammunitions, and explosives."
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called the announcement a "move of fundamental significance."
He said: "Whatever the setbacks, whatever the strains of constant bargaining this is a peace process that is working.
"All paramilitary organisations should follow suit. There will be dangers from those who do not want change but they should realise they have absolutely no support in the wider community."
Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons has become a key sticking point in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Loyalists say the IRA has not done enough to disarm but republican and nationalist parties say the group has made big steps towards putting its weapons beyond use and co-operated with the international body overseeing decommissioning -- a cornerstone of the Good Friday peace accord that created Northern Ireland's coalition government.
In its statement the IRA insisted that decommissioning was not part of the Good Friday accord but said unionists and sections of the British establishment had tied disarming to the peace process in an attempt to prevent change.
The statement read: "At every opportunity they have used the issue of arms as an excuse to undermine and frustrate progress.
"It is for this reason that decommissioning was introduced to the process by the British Government. It has been used since to prevent the changes that a lasting peace requires."
The IRA statement ended: "No one should doubt the difficulties these initiatives cause for us, our volunteers and our support base.
"The political process is now on the point of collapse. Such a collapse would certainly, and eventually, put the overall peace process in jeopardy."
Sinn Fein national chairman Mitchel McLaughlin told PA that the IRA's move was a "very significant" development which needed a positive response from other players in the peace process.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern called the decommissioning "profoundly important" and showed that the peace process offered the best future for Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams publicly called on the IRA to begin disarming on Monday -- a plea which received wide praise from across the political spectrum but which was tempered by the need for words to be turned into action.
The IRA's move comes just two days before UK Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid had to decide whether to suspend Northern Ireland's devolved government.
Ulster Unionist ministers quit the assembly in protest at the IRA's failure to put its weapons beyond use. Now they believe the assembly can be rescued.
Party leader David Trimble said: "The decommissioning body has personally witnessed weapons being put permanently beyond use and permanently unavailable.
"This is the day we were told we would never happen. look forward now with confidence to the reconstitution of the administration."
In May 2000, the IRA, which had given its support to the Good Friday Agreement, said it would not give up any of its weapons but would allow an independent inspection.
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Northern Ireland Assembly
Good Friday Agreement
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