The Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced an end to its armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland yesterday, a move hailed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a step of "unparalleled magnitude."
Blair said disposal of IRA weapons must take place as soon as possible.
But the province's main Protestant party poured cold water on the keenly awaited statement by the Catholic guerrilla group, saying it failed to forswear acts of crime or to inspire confidence that guns had been set aside for ever.
The IRA said in a statement it would cease all armed activity and pursue its aims through politics -- a crucial move to kick-start talks on a lasting political settlement in the violence-torn province. It said its units must "dump arms".
But it made no explicit reference to ending criminal activity -- a major stumbling block to the peace process -- nor did it promise to disband, a move the group that has fought for decades for a united Ireland sees as akin to surrender.
The statement read in part: "The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann [IRA] has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign.
"This will take effect from 4 pm this afternoon. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means," the statement said.
The IRA said it would engage with an independent arms decommissioning body to verify it had put its massive arsenal of guns and explosives beyond use, but gave no date for completion.
"We have invited two independent witnesses, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, to testify to this," it added.
In London, Blair said he welcomed "the recognition that the only route to political change lies in exclusively peaceful and democratic means."
"This may be the day which finally after all these false dawns and dashed hopes peace replaced war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland," he said.
But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports continued union with Britain, was far less enthusiastic.
"Even on the face of the statement, they have failed to explicitly declare an end to their multi-million-pound criminal activity and have failed to provide the level of transparency that would be necessary to truly build confidence that the guns had gone in their entirety," a DUP statement said.
Talks on reviving an assembly, set up under the 1998 peace agreement for Catholics and Protestants to run the province's affairs together, broke down last December after the DUP demanded photos of arms being destroyed. The IRA refused such "humiliation." The IRA has allowed international monitors to witness three acts of decommissioning but would not permit them to reveal details about the weapons.
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