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Friday, September 11, 1998 Published at 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK

World: Europe

First Northern Ireland paramilitary releases

The first paramilitary prisoners to be released early under the terms of the Northern Ireland multi-party agreement have been freed.

Three members of the protestant Ulster Defence Association walked out of the high security Maze prison (outside Belfast), to be followed shortly afterwards by three members of the IRA.

The releases mark the start of a two-year process which will lead to the freeing of nearly all Northern Ireland's paramilitary prisoners. (The scheme has been severely criticised by protestant unionists who say it will allow murderers to escape justice and continue acts of violence.

But) a BBC correspondent in Belfast says the early releases may help to facilitate the handover of paramilitary weapons, which remains the main point of contention in the Northern Ireland peace process.

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