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Inspectors say IRA has fully disarmed

BELFAST -- International weapons inspectors backed by Protestant and Catholic clergymen announced the Irish Republican Army's full disarmament yesterday, a milestone in Northern Ireland peacemaking that drew skepticism and scorn from the province's Protestant majority.

John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who has been working on the issue since 1997, declared that over the past week he had personally inventoried and gotten rid of a mammoth stockpile of IRA weapons, ranging from flame-throwers to surface-to-air missiles.

But the outlawed IRA, which for 12 years resisted British and Protestant demands to disarm, barred the inspectors and the two religious observers from discussing details of what had been surrendered, where it happened, and the manner of its disposal.

The IRA-linked Sinn Fein hopes the announcement yesterday will help the party's popularity in the neighboring Irish Republic, where it has designs on a place in the next coalition government.

The two weapons observers -- one a Methodist minister, the other a Catholic priest -- declined to answer specific questions on the process conducted by officials from Canada, Finland, and the United States. But they described the caches as huge.

''I would lay my life on the line that the IRA has acted in good faith, and has fully disarmed," said the Rev. Alec Reid, a 74-year-old priest.

''This is a significant step in taking the gun out of Irish politics," said Reid, a confidant of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. ''Now it's up to the other paramilitary groups."

De Chastelain said he would not publish a list of what the IRA surrendered until outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups, chiefly the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, also disarm. Both the UVF and UDA, politically rudderless organizations that are less well-armed than the IRA but involved in more violence, have said they will not disarm.

The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, offered praise to the IRA for belatedly delivering on an important goal of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

But Ian Paisley, whose uncompromising Democratic Unionist Party holds veto power on whether to revive power-sharing with Sinn Fein, said the IRA had probably lied to the inspectors and were keeping weapons in reserve. He said the IRA's requirements for secrecy showed they had something to hide.

''There were no photographs, no detailed inventory, and no detail on the destruction of these arms. To describe today's statement as transparent would be the falsehood of the century," Paisley said.

The Democratic Unionists had demanded photographs, a detailed record, and a Protestant clergyman approved by Paisley to serve as an independent witness. The IRA refused to permit photos and selected the two religious witnesses themselves.

On the streets of Belfast, Protestants also openly expressed their doubts.

''Peace doesn't happen in the dark. It has to happen while everyone is watching," said 43-year-old Jerry Chisam.

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