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British begin base cuts in N. Ireland

Moves follow peace statement by the IRA

BELFAST -- Reacting quickly to the Irish Republican Army's peace declaration, Britain began dismantling military posts yesterday in the border ''bandit country" of South Armagh, the IRA's rural heartland where it is still unsafe for troops to use the roads.

British Army engineers flown in by helicopter began taking down a watchtower code named ''Romeo 1-2" atop Sugarloaf Hill less than a day after the outlawed IRA met international demands to declare its 1997 cease-fire permanent and to renounce violence.

First to be removed were the surveillance post's high-tech cameras and directional microphones that monitored traffic on roads and eavesdropped on conversations.

Also earmarked for immediate closure were an army fort in the border village of Forkhill and a watchtower overlooking Newtownhamilton, the only village in South Armagh with a significant Protestant minority.

British authorities said more closures would be unveiled within weeks.

Protestants complained the army was moving too quickly in response to untested IRA pledges. They noted that South Armagh remains a haven for border smugglers and IRA dissidents and that police still require military backup to patrol the area.

But Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, said he expected Britain to accelerate military cutbacks, which began with the IRA's first major cease-fire in 1994.

''We want to see this proceeding as quickly as possible," said Adams, who also discussed the political fallout from the IRA statement in a phone conversation yesterday with President Bush.

The British Army has about 12,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland, down more than 7,000 from 1998.

It previously closed more than three dozen posts, but paused in recent months to await the IRA's next move.

The IRA's declaration Thursday that it was ending its war to end British rule in Northern Ireland was years of negotiations in the making.

The group began a new cease-fire in 1997 but had reserved the right to abandon the truce, which also contained many loopholes for violent activity.

Thursday's statement changed that, announcing IRA commanders ''formally ordered an end to the armed campaign" and instructed members to ''dump arms" and adhere to ''exclusively peaceful means."

Adams, whose party has grown in recent years to become the biggest Catholic political group in Northern Ireland, said the governments of Britain and Ireland now must push Protestant leaders into negotiations to revive power-sharing, the central goal of the 1998 peace accord for the British territory.

The pact's dream of a stable Catholic-Protestant administration has been on hold since 2002, when a moderate-led coalition fell apart amid chronic arguments over the IRA.

Adams called on Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party represents most of the territory's Protestant majority, to drop his longstanding refusal to hold face-to-face talks with Sinn Fein.

''The DUP may hesitate and the DUP may broker a strategy of delay, and delay, and delay again," Adams said. ''If that's the case, the governments have a responsibility to move on and to move on fast."

The Democratic Unionists insisted they would wait several months before deciding whether to enter talks involving Sinn Fein.

The British governor for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said he expected power-sharing negotiations to resume in September following a period to test whether ''this historic [IRA] declaration has actually been delivered -- has violence closed down?"

Hain and Adams both agreed on one point: Outlawed anti-Catholic groups rooted in Northern Ireland's poorest Protestant districts should respond to the IRA move by making their own commitments to renounce violence and disarm.

''While the focus in recent days understandably has been on the IRA, I want to see an end to all paramilitary activity and criminality no matter where it comes from and from whatever faction," Hain said.

Three illegal Protestant gangs -- the Ulster Defense Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Loyalist Volunteer Force -- have committed much more violence than the IRA in recent years, including two Belfast killings this month.

The Protestant extremists' refusal to disband has caused much less political trouble, however, because their representatives attract few votes and are excluded from most political negotiations.

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