Loyalist groups lay down arms
LOYALIST paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland yesterday confirmed they have decommissioned their weapons.
The decommissioning announcement came from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) groups.
The decommissioning acts were overseen by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) led by General John de Chastelain who four years ago witnessed the destruction of the IRA's arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives.
The UVF said it had destroyed its entire arsenal, with a further major disarmament act from the RHC.
The UDA released a statement in Belfast confirming it had decommissioned a portion of its illegal arsenal and had started a process that would lead to the destruction of all its arms.
The UVF leadership said: "We have done so to further augment the establishment of accountable democratic governance in this region of the UK, to remove the pretext that loyalist weaponry is an obstacle to the development of our communities and to compound our legacy of integrity to the peace process."
The UDA statement said: "This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace.
"By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past."
The statements mark a milestone in the peace process and nationalists and republicans have said they hope the decommissioning acts will mark the end of loyalist paramilitary activity.
The UVF killed 550 people during the Troubles, while the UDA, which also operated under the flag of convenience of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), claimed 431 lives. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group allied to the UVF, killed 19 people.
Most of the groups' victims were Catholic civilians.
The process began in autumn 2008 when the so-called Combined Loyalist Military Command was brought together to address the issue.
The announcement was quickly welcomed by the Irish government. Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin said: "In recent years loyalist organisations have been making effective progress towards conflict transformation, and today is an important landmark in this process."
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward set a deadline of August this year for decommissioning to start, threatening to close down the decommissioning avenue if loyalists did not start to put their weapons beyond use.
He welcomed the UVF/RHC announcement and he encouraged the UDA to complete the decommissioning process with the IICD.
"This is an historic day for people in Northern Ireland," said Woodward. "The leadership of the UVF and RHC have today taken a bold and courageous decision for peace."
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