The Maze gives up its terrorists for the final time

The last wave of terrorist prisoners to receive early releases from Northern Ireland's prison began today.

The last wave of terrorist prisoners to receive early releases from Northern Ireland's prison began today.

A total of 86 prisoners were being released, 78 of them from the infamous Maze Prison. Among them are many of the worst mass-murderers and bombers produced by 30 years of terrorist violence.

By the end of the day the Maze will hold just 15 prisoners.

First to emerge this morning to the sound of cheers from dozens of their supporters were eight members of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

They are to be followed during the course of today by a succession of co-ordinated releases involving 12 members of the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters, six from the Loyalist Volunteer force, eight from the Irish National Liberation Army and finally 46 from of the Provisional IRA.

Several UVF prisoners emerging from the Maze hid their faces and made a dash for cars which then sped them away. Many of their supporters also had their faces covered.

Speaking on their behalf, William Smith of the Progressive Unionist Party said the UVF understood the releases would not be welcomed by everyone and sympathised with that view.

He said the UVF did not intend to glorify the occasion, but the prison had touched the lives of many thousands of families and must never be forgotten nor allowed to repeat itself.

Mr Smith himself has personal experience of life in the jail as the first loyalist prisoner to be taken to the prison in 1972, when it was known as Long Kesh.

A group representing terrorist victims staged a protest outside the prison gates.

William Frazer of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, a South Armagh-based group, stood beside a map of the county with stickers scattered across it marking out the hundreds who have died.

Mr Frazer, who lost his father, two uncles and two cousins as well as many friends to republican violence said many of his members' families had been asked to protect the community and serve law and order.

He said they had realise they were risking their lives to do so - but the release of their killers showed that law and order had ended in the province.

As well as the 78 terrorists being release early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement from the Maze Prison, seven were being freed from Maghaberry Prison a few miles away across Co Antrim and one from Magilligan Prison in Co Londonderry.

The releases will bring to 428 the number of releases since the early freedom scheme was introduced - 143 of them life sentence prisoners.

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