The Ulster Volunteer Force, an outlawed Northern Ireland group that for decades attacked the province's Catholic minority, on Thursday renounced violence and pledged to disarm.

The breakthrough in Northern Ireland's 13-year-old peace process came just five days before the formation of a new Catholic-Protestant government, the major goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

The UVF's elder statesman, 73-year-old Gusty Spence, told a Belfast news conference that the paramilitary group would formally cease to exist at midnight.

Spence — who was convicted of the UVF's first murders in 1966 — said the organization he founded that year "will assume a nonmilitary, civilianized role."

"All recruitment has ceased. Military training has ceased. Targeting has ceased, and all intelligence rendered obsolete," Spence said. By intelligence he was referring to the UVF's files on potential targets.

He added that UVF units had been "deactivated," while the group's weapons supplies "have been put beyond reach" of most UVF members.

This means that UVF weapons have been placed in secure locations known only to senior UVF personnel, but have not been presented to Northern Ireland's independent disarmament chief, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain. Spence said he expected talks between UVF representatives and de Chastelain to begin soon.

Nearly 13 years ago, Spence was chosen to read out the UVF's decision to call a cease-fire and to express "abject remorse" for the innocent Catholics it had killed.

Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, welcomed the UVF move as further evidence that the province was "emerging into a new and positive era." But he said the UVF must surrender its arsenal as proof of its intent.

"Of course everyone is judged on what they do as well as what they say. There must be delivery. There must be (weapons) decommissioning," Hain said.

The UVF has faced mounting pressure to disarm in response to the Irish Republican Army, the major paramilitary group in Catholic areas, which surrendered its much greater stockpile of weapons two years ago.

Until now, the UVF has refused, arguing it needs to retain its capability to retaliate against Catholics for any IRA attacks — a position fundamentally undermined by the IRA's disciplined, sustained conversion to peace.

The UVF killed more than 400 people, most of them Catholic civilians, from 1966 to 1994, when it called a cease-fire in response to an IRA truce. Since then, its members have been implicated in about 20 killings, but rarely mounted attacks on the Catholic side of the community.

The UVF, which has an estimated 500 members, remains a major criminal force within working-class Protestant communities in Northern Ireland and occasionally wages deadly criminal feuds with rivals in other Protestant paramilitary groups.

In 2005, a panel of experts called the International Monitoring Commission blamed the UVF for killing four people and mounting dozens of attacks that year in a campaign to wipe out a breakaway Protestant gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

The panel, which Britain and Ireland formed to assess paramilitary behavior, also accused UVF members of shooting repeatedly at police and directing Protestant mob violence during weeklong riots.