BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The British army began closing or demolishing military installations in the Irish Republican Army (search)'s rural heartland Friday in a rapid response to the IRA's declaration to renounce violence and disarm.
Soldiers started to dismantle or withdraw from three positions in South Armagh (search), a rebellious borderland nicknamed "bandit country," where soldiers still travel by helicopter because of the risk of IRA dissidents' roadside bombs.
The move came a day after IRA commanders promised to disarm fully, and directed their units to dump their weapons and use "exclusively peaceful means" from now on.
The breakthrough was the product of a two-year diplomatic showdown between the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party (search) on one side, and the British, Irish and U.S. governments, which demanded the IRA's full disarmament and disbanding.
Britain, which also parolled an IRA mass murderer Wednesday as part of the emerging new agreement, agreed to close down an army base in the South Armagh village of Forkhill; a hilltop tower near Camlough Mountain with commanding views of surrounding hamlets and roads, and a tall tower in Newtownhamilton, the only South Armagh village with a substantial Protestant minority.
Lt.-Gen. Sir Reddy Watt, who commands the British army's 12,000-member force in Northern Ireland, confirmed the military cuts. Watt said he and Chief Const. Hugh Orde, commander of the Northern Ireland police, "have decided that a further reduction in security profile is possible."
The British army has already withdrawn more than 7,000 soldiers and closed more than three dozen installations since 1998, but paused the gradual process in recent months to await the IRA's next move.
In April 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) specified that if the threat from the IRA and dissident groups ended conclusively, Britain's permanent peacetime garrison in Northern Ireland would fall to 5,000 troops operating from 14 bases across this territory of 1.7 million people.
The IRA said it hoped to complete the disposal of its weapon stockpiles "as quickly as possible" and would allow Catholic and Protestant clergy to witness the disarmament work. The IRA surrendered unknown amounts of arms in 2001, 2002 and 2003 amid total secrecy, fuelling Protestants' suspicions they were being conned.
And Protestant politicians condemned the British authorities' rapid reward for the IRA words, noting that the police still aren't able to operate without military backup in South Armagh.
But Conor Murphy, a former IRA member who is Sinn Fein's member of the British Parliament for South Armagh, said its residents "have lived with the negative effects of military occupation for too long." He said Friday's military retreat "must be built upon in the days and weeks ahead."
The British, Irish and American governments have stressed that the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998 - a stable Catholic-Protestant administration - cannot be achieved unless the IRA disappears as a threat to Northern Ireland stability.
All three governments have grown increasingly impatient with the Sinn Fein-IRA movement since 2002, when a moderate-led coalition collapsed amid chronic arguments over IRA activities and weaponry. Sinn Fein had two of 12 posts in that coalition, but would be the major Catholic part of any future coalition because of its growing vote.
The IRA had been observing a ceasefire since 1997 but reserved the right to abandon the truce, which also contained many loopholes for violent activity. Thursday's statement changed that, as IRA commanders "formally ordered an end to the armed campaign" and instructed members to avoid all violent activities.