'Bloody Sunday' inquiry begins 28 years on

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After nearly three decades of controversy and grief, a public inquiry into the 1972 shooting deaths of 13 Catholic protesters in a Londonderry street - the worst mass killing by British troops in Northern Ireland - has opened.

Relatives and friends of the victims filled Londonderry's Guildhall for the biggest public inquiry in British legal history. The hearing, before three judges led by Lord Saville, is expected to last two years and will take evidence from some 500 people.

"What happened, whatever the truth of the matter, was a tragedy, the pain of which for many has endured down the passage of the years," Christopher Clarke, an inquiry lawyer, said in opening remarks.

"The tribunal's task is to tever complex, painful or unacceptable to whomsoever that truth may be."

The tragedy, which became known as Bloody Sunday, occurred on Jan. 30, 1972 when troops opened fire on Catholics protesting against the internment without trial of Irish Republican Army suspects.

The soldiers claim they fired after being provoked by IRA gunmen - an assertion that has long infuriated Roman Catholic residents of Londonderry, who insist the soldiers fired first and killed only unarmed people.

The massacre was a defining moment in Northern Ireland's past three decades of conflict, engendering a deep-rooted bitterness toward the British and driving scores of Catholics to join the IRA.

Families said they hope for answers.

"The injured and the victims of the dead are depending on the Saville team to establish the truth and justice for all those who were murdered," said John Kelly, whose brother Michael was killed.

"We were promised an open, impartial inquiry. Let's hope they can put that in place."

Preparations for the inquiry have cost an estimated £15 million. More than 600 civilians and 500 soldiers already have been interviewed and inquiry staff are collecting printed, photographic, film and audio evidence.

The inquiry, appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, has been delayed by arguments over whether to grant anonymity to soldiers at the shooting.

The judges said in October they had no choice but to protect the identity of the soldiers - including those who did not fire their weapons - after a Court of Appeal ruling upholding their right not to be identified.

The other judges are Sir Edward Somers from New Zealand and Canadian William Hoyt.