BELFAST (Reuters) - The Ulster Volunteer Force, the most lethal of Northern Ireland’s Protestant paramilitary groups, said on Thursday it would put “beyond reach” weapons it used against Catholics opposed to British rule in the province.
“As of midnight, Thursday 3rd May 2007, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando will assume a non military, civilianized, role,” the UVF said in a statement.
“All ordnance has been put beyond reach,” it added.
The UVF also said it had ended recruitment and military training and instructed members to obey the rule of law.
The group, which killed more people than any other Protestant gang during 30 years of sectarian conflict in the British province, said its move followed disarmament by the opposing and predominantly Catholic Irish Republican Army.
London and Dublin welcomed the news five days before politicians from opposite ends of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide begin running the province’s day-to-day affairs.
“We need to see how today’s announcement is translated into action,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
Irish premier Bertie Ahern said the move was “potentially very important” but joined others in pointing out that putting weapons beyond reach was not the same as disarming.
When the IRA ended its armed campaign against British rule and so-called ‘loyalist’ groups such as the UVF, it refused to dispose of its weapons in public but did agree to the presence of independent monitors to verify the scale of decommissioning.
The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), headed by retired Canadian General John de Chastelain, said it was ready to work with the UVF.
“While we’re encouraged by their proposal to end their involvement in paramilitarism, and to reject criminal activity, we are concerned by their intention to deal with their arms without the involvement of the IICD,” the commission said.
The UVF said its decision was in response to a deal between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of hard-line Protestant cleric Ian Paisley and IRA political ally Sinn Fein that will see the two sides sharing power from May 8.
“We welcome recent developments in securing stable, durable, democratic structures in Northern Ireland and accept,” it said.
London and Dublin called on the UVF and other loyalist groups to stand down last month after a ceasefire watchdog found that while they had not recently been engaged in “terrorism”, some members were involved in violence and crime.
A 1998 peace deal largely ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland but paramilitary groups continued to exist.
The IRA pledged in 2005 to dump its arms and pursue its goal of a united Ireland through peaceful means, paving the way for historic talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein in March, but opposing groups such as the UVF had been slow to follow suit.
During the 1970s the UVF carried out some of the worst attacks of the conflict, including killing 33 people with car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974.
Of more than 3,600 people killed during three decades of sectarian conflict, the UVF was responsible for the deaths of around 540 people — most of them civilians.