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The BBC's Denis Murray
"He declined to apologise"
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The BBC's Daniela Relph
"Michael Stone's release leaves the prison virtually empty"
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BBC NI chief security correspondent, Brian Rowan
The Maze prison is unique because of the effect it has had on the community
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Monday, 24 July, 2000, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Loyalist killer freed from Maze

Michael Stone following his release from the Maze prison
Convicted loyalist murderer Michael Stone has been released from the top security Maze prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Stone's release marks the beginning of a week in which the bulk of Northern Ireland's paramilitary prisoners are to be freed under one of the most controversial provisions of the 1998 accord.

The protestant gunman achieved notoriety for a lone gun and grenade attack on the west Belfast funeral of an IRA man in which three people were killed. He was jailed for a total of six murders.

Stone was met by supporters as he left prison
Stone was met by supporters as he left prison
Having served 12 years of a 30-year sentence, Stone emerged through the prison turnstile shortly before 1100 BST on Monday to be greeted by a bank of media and a large crowd of loyalist supporters.

He made no comment to the waiting press and was ushered into a waiting people carrier and driven away at speed.

At a news conference later, Stone spoke about his early release.

He said: "Today is a day of celebration for my friends, myself and my family.

"But I recognise that there are those in the nationalist/republican community who view my release and with anger, just as the releases of republican prisoners on Friday will also anger the loyalist/unionist community.

"I understand this. There are no words I can say to take away this hurt."

Stone also said he would be working to help the peace process succeed.

Asked if he believed the war was over, he said: "My war is over."

Challenged decision

His release followed a High Court case last week in which he unsuccessfully challenged the prison authorities decision not to free him before last weekend.

The final wave of early releases includes IRA bomber Sean Kelly and loyalist Torrens Knight, convicted for the Greysteel pub murders. Between them they were responsible for 17 killings committed in the space of a week in 1993.

By Friday, a total of 430 loyalist and republican paramilitaries will have been released, leaving just a handful of prisoners in Europe's most secure prison.

Those remaining inside include three republicans who murdered Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in the prison in December 1997.

Members of the main paramilitary groups on ceasefire will all be released.

Early release scheme

However, those ineligible for release include members of groups still active such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA, the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders, who are being held in Maghaberry prison.

The early release scheme has been one of the most criticised aspects of the peace accord which paved the way for the establishment of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

The latest wave of releases has been condemned by unionist politicians in Northern Ireland and by Conservative MPs.

The Ulster Unionist MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, said relatives of victims killed or maimed by paramilitaries feel deeply frustrated because violence was continuing and there had been no decommissioning of illegal weapons.

Democratic Unionist Party assembly member Ian Paisley Junior said he was utterly disgusted that there had been no tangible decommissioning.

On Sunday, a Conservative Party MP Andrew Hunter said the early release scheme was "fundamentally flawed" and had been badly handled by the government.

His comments were criticised by Progressive Unionist Party Assembly member David Ervine and by a republican prisoners' representative and former IRA hunger striker on the same programme.

The East Belfast MLA, who served 11 years in prison for transporting a bomb, said the early release scheme had saved "hundreds of lives".

Lawrence McKeown of Coiste na n-Iarchimi, a republican prisoners' group, said republicans had served more than 100,000 years for paramilitary offences while members of the security forces had served less than 20 years.

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See also:

24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Michael Stone: Notorious loyalist killer
24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Brother's doubts over killer's release
15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Prison officers apply to leave service
24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Inside the Maze Prison
24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
The prison that served its time
04 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Maze prison closure on target
28 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
End in sight for prisoner releases
19 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Killer loses release challenge
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