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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 March 2007, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Last soldiers leave Crossmaglen
Demolition had already been completed on the look-out tower
Demolition had already been completed on the look-out tower
British soldiers have pulled out of Crossmaglen - the border village at the heart of republican south Armagh.

When troops of the Black Watch left the village it ended a posting all soldiers dreaded.

The area was considered so dangerous that troops and police officers could not travel by road, and had to be flown in and out by helicopter.

The move was a significant step in the so-called "normalisation" - part of the overall political process.

It was previously considered impossible for the police to carry out their duties in Crossmaglen without military support.

For more than 30 years, soldiers and police officers based in the village were tasked with confronting some of the IRA's most deadly units in the heart of south Armagh.

The area was referred to by many as "Bandit Country" because of its history of lawlessness.

More than 20 police officers and soldiers were murdered in the Crossmaglen area during the Troubles.

Demolition had already been completed on the look-out tower and the Army and police base which loomed over Tomas O Fiaich Square in the village.

The Army installations, troops on patrol and helicopter flights were a source of anger for locals in the village for decades.

"For over 30 years the community here in south Armagh has had to endure British military occupation," MP for the area, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, said.

Army watchtowers
Army watchtowers have been taken down in the area

"It is now important that lands previously occupied by the British are returned to their owners and that larger sites vacated by the crown forces are utilised for the benefit of the communities which have had to endure so much repression from the British army throughout their unwelcome stay in south Armagh."

However, Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy said: "There is a strong feeling among the unionist population in the area that these changes are slightly premature given the very real threat posed by republican dissidents in the area.

"Unionist politicians have been given warnings from the PSNI to be careful in terms of personal security in the run up to 8 May."

An Army spokesman said: "As published in the normalisation plan of 28 March 2006, the military will be leaving Crossmaglen by the end of this month."

The withdrawal of the Army from the base was part of the government's normalisation programme in response to the IRA's declared end to its activities.

Operation Banner, the name the Army gave to its support role for the police, will end completely in August after more than 30 years - the longest running operation in British army history.

By the summer there will be no more than 5,000 British soldiers in Northern Ireland, based in 11 locations.

At the height of the Troubles there were almost 30,000, based in more than 100 locations.

Sharon Hall reports from Crossmaglen

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