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Loyalists start weapons decommissioning

Loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland today confirmed they have started to decommission their weapons.

The decommissioning announcement came from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC) groups.

The decommissioning acts were overseen by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) led by General John de Chastelain who four years ago witnessed the destruction of the IRA's arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives.

The UVF said it had destroyed its entire arsenal, with a further major disarmament act from the RHC.

The UDA released a statement in Belfast confirming it had decommissioned a portion of its illegal arsenal and had started a process that would lead to the destruction of all its arms.

The UVF leadership today said: "We have done so to further augment the establishment of accountable democratic governance in this region of the UK, to remove the pretext that loyalist weaponry is an obstacle to the development of our communities and to compound our legacy of integrity to the peace process."

The UDA statement said: "This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace.

"This process was initiated in autumn 2008 when the Combined Loyalist Military Command was reconvened to address the outstanding issue of Loyalist military material. As a result of those discussions, all constituent parts agreed to set in place the internal arrangements necessary to begin the disarmament process.

"As a result we have held a series of meetings with General John De Chastelain and his team who have witnessed an act of decommissioning. This process will be completed within the previously notified timescale.

"By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past."

The statements mark a milestone in the peace process and nationalists and republicans have said they hope the decommissioning acts will mark the end of loyalist paramilitary activity.

The UVF killed 550 people during the Troubles, while the UDA, which also operated under the flag of convenience of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), claimed 431 lives.

The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group allied to the UVF, killed 19 people.

Most of the groups' victims were Catholic civilians.

The UDA statement today said: "In this important moment in our history we wish to pay tribute to the courage and fortitude of our comrades and communities.

"To those who have died, we salute you and forever treasure your memory.

"To those who have lost loved ones, we share your grief.

'To those who have been injured or imprisoned, we thank you for your sacrifice.

"The dark days are now behind us and it is time to move on. There is no place for guns and violence in the new society we are building. It is time to work for a better future."