Focus will switch to hidden stockpiles of arms

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NOW THAT the Northern Ireland peace process deadlock over arms appears to be on the brink of being broken, focus will turn swiftly to just what the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups have in their arsenals.

If decommissioning is to become a reality, the authorities, but especially the Canadian General John de Chastelain who heads the Independent International Decommissioning Commission, will need to know - or at least estimate - what each group has stockpiled.

Estimates vary hugely. And getting rid of weapons does not mean that efforts to replace them will not be made - as witnessed by the gun-smuggling operation from America that was smashed during the summer, and which the US authorities said was organised by the IRA.

But estimates suggest that the IRA has a stockpile of up to three tons of Semtex high explosive and a stash of about 650 AK47 semi-automatic rifles.

Most of these weapons are believed to have been shipped secretly to the IRA by the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, in the Seventies and Eighties.

The IRA is also thought to have about 20 Russian heavy-calibre armour- piercing machine guns, at least one Sam 7 ground-to-air missile, hundreds of handguns, detonators and several tons of ammunition, and bomb and mortar parts.

On the loyalist side, the Ulster Volunteer Force is believed to hold hundreds of rifles and pistols, home-made weapons and an unknown amount of Powergel plastic explosive.

The Ulster Defence Association is also thought to have hundreds of rifles, machine pistols and handguns, home-made guns, and an unknown amount of commercial explosives. Like the IRA, it has yet to appoint a go-between.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force has a small number of rifles, handguns, explosives and detonators. It was the first, and only, group to have decommissioned weapons.