LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- A mammoth investigation into the "Bloody Sunday" British Army massacre of protesters 32 years ago heard testimony yesterday from its 919th and final witness, the city's former IRA commander.
But the English, Australian, and Canadian judges overseeing the inquiry face at least another year of sifting through mountains of evidence before publishing their conclusions about the Jan. 30, 1972, killings in Londonderry.
Paratroopers that day stormed through barricades erected by the Irish Republican Army and shot to death 13 Catholics who were protesting Britain's detention of IRA suspects without trial. The killings fueled a generation of Catholic bitterness toward the British.
Since the British government-authorized inquiry began hearing testimony in 2000, survivors and relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead have gathered often at the 17th-century Guildhall to hear witnesses recall their memories.
Many also traveled to London last year, when the tribunal heard former soldiers who opened fire that day describe their actions as a justifiable response to IRA gunfire. Hundreds of witnesses bitterly dispute that version of events.
Yesterday, the city's former IRA commander said the group had kept its small weapons cache in storage on Bloody Sunday.
"It would have been crazy to think of taking on the army," said the IRA veteran, who, like the former British soldiers, was allowed to testify without being identified by name. He was referred to as "Provisional IRA 24."
The probe's English chairman, former London appelate judge Lord Saville, has already described the findings of the original 1972 probe -- which exonerated the soldiers and ruled that some of the dead may have been armed -- as not credible.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has also said the government does not believe any of the dead were carrying weapons.
Saville concluded yesterday by announcing he would not try to prosecute any witnesses -- including journalists and Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party -- who had refused to reveal the names of IRA members or other sources in testimony. They could have faced contempt proceedings and possible fines or jail sentences.
Saville, who has won praise from even the most anti-British locals as fair and determined, said the tribunal would reconvene June 7 to hear summaries from rival legal teams representing the victims' families and the soldiers, then return Oct. 7 to hear a summary from the tribunal's own team of lawyers.
He and his fellow judges, William Hoyt of Canada and John Toohey of Australia, plan to begin writing conclusions late this year and deliver their report to the British government in mid-2005.
Relatives who campaigned for three decades for a new inquiry said they expect Saville to vindicate the reputations of the Londonderry dead -- and to present evidence sufficient to bring murder charges against the soldiers.
"We believe this inquiry, hopefully, has done a good job and eventually Lord Saville will deliver the truth, plain and simple," said John Kelly, whose brother Michael was among the dead.
But away from the tribunal, many commentators and politicians have criticized the ballooning cost of the inquiry, projected to exceed $280 million.
"Given the lack of resources in Northern Ireland for education, health, and transport, this is a scandal which must never be repeated," said Gregory Campbell, the most prominent Protestant politician in Londonderry.