IRA says it will begin disarming 'within weeks'

The IRA announced today that it will soon begin disarming, a hugely significant development in wider efforts to revive the Northern Ireland peace process.

The terror group issued its statement a day after the British and Irish governments announced ambitious plans to transfer power back to the province's suspended Catholic-Protestant administration May 22 - and, controversially, to extend the deadline for total IRA disarmament from that date to June 2001.

"The IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use," the IRA said in a statement issued to journalists in Belfast.

"We will do it in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others to ensure maximum public confidence," the group said.

In a joint statement, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern welcomed the IRA's statement and announced that former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa would lead the inspections of the IRA weapons dumps.

The IRA welcomed other commitments given by the two governments as part of negotiations this week in Northern Ireland. These included a promise to parole all remaining IRA prisoners held in British and Irish jails by July 28, and to pass legislation by November reforming the RUC.

Before calling a 1997 truce, the IRA killed about 300 RUC officers as part of its 27-year campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state linked to Britain.

To work, the governments' formula will require support from the Ulster Unionists, the major British Protestant party within the four-party Cabinet proposed as part of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

The Ulster Unionists in December agreed to form that historic coalition alongside the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party - but only on condition that the IRA would begin scrapping its hidden stockpiles of weapons in response. When that didn't happen, Britain reimposed direct rule of Northern Ireland in February, and the IRA in turn broke off all contact with an international disarmament commission.

Saturday's IRA statement for the first time offered a firm sense that the shadowy group would start "putting weapons beyond use" - the latest euphemism being used within Northern Ireland negotiations to describe disarmament.

Previously the IRA had rejected the whole concept as equivalent to surrender.

The dramatic IRA statement came as Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble - the Nobel laureate who holds the top post in the suspended administration - convened a private meeting of his party's bloc of lawmakers to discuss strategy.

Previously, Trimble has said he would resume working alongside Sinn Fein if the IRA gave a "cast-iron commitment" to disarm. That position has placed him under threat from Protestant critics both inside and outside his party, who have long demanded that the IRA totally disarm and disband before Sinn Fein could gain a slice of power.

Trimble has already been politically weakened by an unexpectedly strong leadership challenge in March. He also is vulnerable to criticism from his hard-line rivals for Protestant votes, the Democratic Unionists. Like Sinn Fein, that party is entitled to two posts within the suspended Cabinet - even though it opposes sharing power with Sinn Fein under any circumstances.