Army patrols cut back

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The Independent Online
Army patrolling is being wound down and paramilitary prisoners will receive longer Christmas leave in the latest relaxations in Northern Ireland security policy.

In a new move the army will no longer carry out routine patrols on the streets of Belfast during daylight hours. Troops were taken off the streets in west Belfast last week, and now this initiative has been extended to the rest of the city.

The development is in line with a gradual rundown of security measures since the present IRA ceasefire came into effect in July. Last month the first troops to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland, 250 paratroopers, were flown to England.

RUC assistant Chief Constable Bill Stewart said: "At present there is no routine army accompaniment of foot patrols in the Belfast area during daylight hours. However, as with all security measures, this can quickly be reversed should the situation demand it."

At the same time, around 160 republican and loyalist inmates of the Maze prison will benefit from the lengthening of Christmas leave from seven to 10 days. More than a third of sentenced paramilitary prisoners are expected to take advantage of this.

Sinn Fein welcomed the move but said republicans wanted "significant movement from the government on releases". William Smith, a loyalist spokesman, echoed this sentiment, declaring: "It's time they stopped tinkering with the system and started moving towards getting prisoners out."

At the Stormont talks, meanwhile, the parties have agreed to a suggestion from chairman George Mitchell for a new format intended to inject pace into the process. Each party will now send two senior members to a new working group to identify the key issues ahead.