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N. Ireland paramilitary group renounces its violent past

The Ulster Volunteer Force, whose murals adorn buildings and walls throughout Northern Ireland, renounced violence yesterday and pledged to evolve into a force for peace. (PETER MORRISON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

DUBLIN-- The Ulster Volunteer Force, an underground Protestant army that terrorized Roman Catholics for decades and committed the bloodiest attack of the Northern Ireland conflict, renounced violence yesterday and promised to evolve into a force for good.

Leaders of the British territory's Catholic minority welcomed the surprise announcement. But they also expressed skepticism, given the organization's hate-fueled past and criminal present as well as its breaches of its own 1994 cease-fire declaration.

The British, Irish, and US governments called on the organization's commanders to demonstrate their sincerity by surrendering weapons stockpiles, an act completed two years ago by the rival Irish Republican Army.

"This is a real end for the Ulster Volunteer Force," said Gusty Spence, the paramilitary group's founding father. "The steps outlined today in this statement, I truly believe, will bring us closer to the peaceful, democratic, prosperous future that all our people deserve."

Ulster Volunteer Force members killed more than 400 Catholic civilians from 1966 to 1994, the year the group called an open-ended truce. It exploded four car bombs in the neighboring Republic of Ireland, killing 33 people, on May 17, 1974 -- the deadliest terror strike in four decades of sectarian bloodshed over Northern Ireland.

The statement came just five days before a new Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland is scheduled to take office in Belfast, fulfilling the central dream of power sharing contained in the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

The group said it was renouncing violence after recognizing that Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom appeared secure because of the failure of the IRA campaign to end British control.

Spence said that the group had abandoned recruiting, training, and intelligence-gathering, and that all its units have been deactivated.

Spence, 73, said the group would assume a nonmilitary role in its working-class Protestant power bases beginning at midnight last night. He said it looked forward to working on community improvement projects with British government support.

Crucially, however, Spence said that while the group's commanders had placed its weapons "beyond reach" of its rank-and-file members, it was not ready to surrender its arsenal to the disarmament program overseen by retired Canadian general John de Chastelain.

De Chastelain, who since 1997 has been trying to convince Northern Ireland's panoply of armed gangs to give up their weapons, said he was concerned that the group gave no firm commitment to open talks with him. The governments in Dublin, London, and Washington backed the general.

"Today's commitments by the UVF signaling a fundamental change are very welcome," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of the Irish Republic. "Words now need to be borne out with actions, and we look forward to their full delivery."

Paula Dobriansky, the US envoy to Northern Ireland, said the statement offered "a clear recognition that the people of Northern Ireland want peace and stability."

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