BELFAST -- The Irish Republican Army apologized yesterday for shooting to death a Catholic girl in 1973 during a botched ambush on a British Army patrol.
The IRA had long insisted that British soldiers killed the girl, 14-year-old Kathleen Feeney, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland's predominantly Catholic second-largest city. But in a statement published in the Derry Journal newspaper, the outlawed group said a new internal investigation had confirmed what the public had long believed: the IRA did it.
''Our failure to publicly accept responsibility for her death until now has only added to the hurt and pain of the Feeney family," the IRA statement said. ''The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann [Gaelic for IRA] wish to apologize unreservedly to the Feeney family for the death of Kathleen and for all the grief that our actions have caused to them."
The statement was the latest act of public contrition from the IRA, which killed about 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 as part of a failed campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a British territory. The underground organization called an open-ended truce that year as part of a peace process that produced Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998.
Usually, IRA apologies have been roundly criticized as cynically timed for political effect, for containing qualifications that offend the victims' families, or simply for coming decades too late.
Mark Durkan, the Catholic moderate who represents Londonderry in the British Parliament, said the IRA should have told the truth long ago on scores of such disputed killings.
''No family should have had to wait so long for the truth," Durkan said.
But the Feeney family, which always accused the IRA of responsibility, offered a muted welcome in a prepared statement. Siblings of the slain girl had approached IRA members in Londonderry earlier this year.
''It is the family's wish that this will help bring closure," the family statement said.
Kathleen was struck by a single bullet when at least one IRA gunman opened fire on a British Army foot patrol about 200 yards away on Nov. 14, 1973. The IRA initially claimed that it had fired shots at the troops after they killed the girl, who had been playing in the street.