Maze prisoners go home for Christmas

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The Independent Online

More than 120 convicted terrorists walked out of the Maze prison to start a 12-day period of leave with their families, as the top-security prison virtually emptied.

More than 120 convicted terrorists walked out of the Maze prison to start a 12-day period of leave with their families, as the top-security prison virtually emptied.

Army and RUC activity will also be drastically scaled down, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, said as he detailed significant security relaxations in the province.

A personal intervention by Mr Mandelson means that the huge and heavily fortified Maze now holds just five prisoners who are all affiliated to the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a group whose commitment to the peace process is uncertain. They are all on remand and due to face trial next year.

With more than 300 republicans and loyalists already released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, 131 remaining inmates were eligible for Christmas leave. Mr Mandelson used his discretion to allow a further eight, made up of both loyalists and republicans, to go with them. He said he was doing this as a measure to build confidence and in recognition of what he described as the remarkable political progress made in recent weeks.

Those released include well-known figures from republican and loyalist groups. Among them are James Mc-Ardle, who was jailed for 25 years for involvement in the IRA bombing in London Docklands, which killed two people in February 1996.

Others include the Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, and the leading loyalist Michael Stone, who was jailed for a gun and grenade attack on mourners at an IRA funeral in 1988.

The releases were criticised by a number of Protestant groups. Willie Frazer, a spokesman for the group Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, said: "Here we have people who have been responsible for murder, intimidation and torture and they are going to be allowed out of prison and sit down at the dinner table this Christmas with the turkey and their families while we have empty spaces at our tables."

Although Sinn Fein found no fault with the release scheme, its spokesmen took exception to the security strategy document issued by Mr Mandelson. They criticised the fact that while it anticipated a progressive winddown of security it did not set out a timetable or sequence of further measures. The paper said this could not be done because of the difficulty of predicting the activities of groups that continued to use or threaten violence.

It said that in recent years 26 army bases and installations had been closed or demolished, while more than 100 crossborder roads had been reopened. The number of service personnel on operational duties is under 15,000, fewer than at any time since 1970. Security barriers and gates in 20 town and city centres are to be left open and eventually removed. Protective fencing around police stations will also be progressively removed. Two more RUC interrogation centres will close and the use of plastic bullets will also be reviewed.

Mr Mandelson also confirmed a further reduction in troop numbers. Three battalions of soldiers on temporary duty are expected to return permanently to Britain.

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