Ulster Peace Talks: Sizing up the IRA's arsenal

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THE IRA has made a historic offer to hand over its weapons, but the extent of its arsenal is hard to pinpoint.

The first act of voluntary decommissioning happened last December. A handful of weapons kept in a Belfast warehouse were destroyed after being given up by a fringe loyalist group in the city.

While the event carried a powerful symbolic message because of its unprecedented nature, the haul represented a drop in the ocean in terms of the total supply of arms in Northern Ireland.

The IRA is the most heavily armed group. In the mid-1980s it received several shiploads of guns from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan regime, which transformed the organisation into the best-supplied terrorist group in western Europe.

At the heart of the IRA arsenal are up to 1,000 rifles, most of them modern Kalashnikovs that came from Libya. There are also hundreds of pistols and handguns.

The IRA also received from Colonel Gaddafi a selection of sophisticated weaponry including powerful machine-guns, anti-aircraft weapons and a number of ground-to-air missiles. The organisation's members may also possess up to three tons of Semtex, the plastic explosive it has incorporated into its armour-piercing grenades, a couple of flame- throwers and some shoulder-fired rockets, as well as mortar shells and under-car booby trap devices.

Loyalist groups, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, are much larger than the IRA butnot as well-equipped - though a shipment from South Africa about 10 years ago brought them hundreds more guns. They are thought to have perhaps 400 rifles and 300 handguns, as well as dozens of machine-guns and a small quantity of explosives.

Northern Ireland also has a huge number of legally held firearms - 139,000 in a population of a million and a half. Most of these are shotguns and airguns; there are 13,000 small-bore rifles and 12,700 handguns.