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Friday, December 18, 1998 Published at 22:30 GMT

Paramilitary arms destroyed

Sparks flew as the first guns to be handed over were destroyed

The first steps towards the decommissioning of terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland have been taken with a cache of arms belonging to paramilitary group the Loyalist Volunteer Force being handed over.

Dennis Murray: This may only have been a modest start, but it was a start
Rifles, submachine guns, sawn-off shotguns and revolvers were cut up by weapons experts in a workshop in Belfast, watched over by Canadian General John de Chastelain, who chairs the disarmament commission.

The decommissioning came hours after a landmark political deal in which unionists and nationalists agreed on the structures of the province's new Assembly - giving a significant pre-Christmas boost to the peace process.

Observers say larger paramilitary groups still hold weapons, but the LVF action could increase pressure on the IRA to give up its weapons.

Tom Coulter reports on a mixed political reaction to the handover
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam told BBC News: "It is a significant step, there's no doubt about it.

"It's the first decommissioning that has happened in the process and I hope more will follow.

"It is important because it means the Good Friday Agreement, which had a number of bits to it, is progressing more now than it was 24 hours ago."

Dr Mowlam said the LVF's decision could provide an incentive to other groups.

[ image: Trimble:
Trimble: "A very important occasion"
This was a view echoed by Northern Ireland First Minister and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. He welcomed the LVF action as a "very important occasion", but challenged republican leaders to show they were serious about peace and democracy.

"They have been given an example, let them and other paramilitaries follow it," he said after the LVF handed over some of its weapons.

But Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was sceptical that the handover would encourage the IRA to make a similar gesture.

He said: "I think the IRA's commitment to all of this is seen by them as announcing and maintaining a cessation."

The IRA repeated last week that it would not disarm.

But Mr Trimble said nobody with "an ounce of democratic spirit" could justify opposing the will of the people for a new future by violent means.

[ image: General de Chastelain: Paramilitaries will decide on handover]
General de Chastelain: Paramilitaries will decide on handover
The handover began shortly before the expiry of a certificate issued to the LVF, allowing the group to hand over weapons without fear of prosecution.

The LVF, which has been involved in a string of sectarian murders, gave up nine weapons, together with 350 rounds of ammunition, two pipe bombs, six detonators and some shotgun cartridges, to the headquarters of the decommissioning body.

The arms were sent, from Portadown in County Armagh, under police escort, to General John de Chastelain, chairman of the decommissioning body, in east Belfast.

The LVF's intermediary with the disarmament commission - paroled killer-turned-preacher Kenny McClinton - said the group had handed over a bigger-than-expected chunk of its arsenal in hopes of shaming the IRA into matching the gesture.

Kenny McClinton: "Surely an organised political party can bring the IRA to the table"
He said: "The fact that the Loyalist Volunteer Force has taken this first step, has led the way as it were, is proof positive that the decommissioning process in Northern Ireland can and will work."

He added: "In the opinion of peace-loving citizens worldwide, it is therefore seen to be incumbent upon Irish republicans not to ridicule this LVF decommissioning gesture, but to rise to the challenge set and to prove you are genuinely committed to social peace and the democratic process."

General John de Chastelain: "The LVF invited us to do this event. We have done it"
Watching the weapons being destroyed, General de Chastelain said: "Our role here is to decommission weapons. Decommissioning is a voluntary process. We can only do what we are invited to do. The LVF invited us to do this event. We have done it.

"What effect that will have on other paramilitary groups is up to them. Paramilitary groups themselves will decide when they wish to hand over their weapons.

"Naturally, since our role is to decommission and since the majority of the people, north and south, approve of the Good Friday Agreement which calls for the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons by May 22 of the year 2000, naturally we would hope that would happen."

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