By Andrew Bushe in Dublin
and Anne Cadwallader in Belfast
The Irish National Liberation Army has ended its 23-year long campaign of violence by apologizing to victims and saying conditions for armed struggle do not now exist.
However, the small but particularly lethal group defiantly refused to say it regretted "taking the war" to the British and loyalists.
Meanwhile, the so-called "Real IRA" has called a temporary "suspension" of its campaign while it holds "consultations" with its members on how they should proceed. The Real IRA admitted it was responsible for the Omagh bombing.
The INLA, on the other hand, called a "complete cease-fire" from noon last Saturday in a statement issued in Belfast through its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
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The group admitted that innocent people were killed and injured and offered its "sincere, heartfelt and genuine apology."
The INLA has killed more than 140 people in its 23-year feud-riven existence. It is now demanding that its prisoners be released early on terms equivalent to those offered the IRA and UVF.
There had been a prolonged internal debate within the INLA/IRSP over the future direction of the organization with many INLA prisoners arguing that there remained no value in proceeding with violent action.
The INLA recently killed two off-duty police officers in separate actions. One was killed in a Belfast gay bar in May 1997, the other while he was out shopping with his wife in Armagh on March 27 this year.
The INLA claimed responsibility for a bombing in Newtownhamilton last month, but security forces believe this attack was carried out by the Real IRA and merely claimed by INLA.
The IRSP remains implacably opposed to the Stormont Agreement, on grounds that it could lead to the strengthening of partition.
The INLA statement of cessation said in part: "We acknowledge and admit faults and grievous errors in our prosecution of the war. It was never our intention, desire or wish to become embroiled in sectarian or internecine warfare.
"We accept responsibility for our part in actions which hindered the struggle. Those actions should never have happened.
"We have, however, nothing to apologize for in taking the war to the British and their loyalist henchmen. Those who preyed on the blood of nationalists paid a heavy price.
"However, the will of the Irish people is clear. It is now time to silence the guns and allow the working classes the time and opportunity to advance their demands and their needs," the statement said.
The INLA said it believed the Good Friday agreement was not worth the sacrifices of the past 30 years and said it is still politically opposed to it.
However, the group added: "The people of the island of Ireland have spoken clearly as to their wishes . . . We recognize their desire for a cessation of violence expressed through the referendum and for a peaceful future.
"In calling this cessation we recognize that the political
situation has changed since the formation of the INLA. We recognize that armed struggle can never be the only option for revolutionaries.
"In the new conditions prevailing, it is only right to respond to the new conditions. Those conditions demand a cease-fire."
Welcoming the announcement, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said it must now be "validated in deed as in word".
He also called for the Real IRA, which carried out the Omagh bombing, to convert its suspension of operations into a "definitive and unqualified cessation of violence"
"It is important that yet another paramilitary organization has heeded the clear and powerfully expressed will for peace of the people of Ireland."
Ahern said that now two of the three republican splinter groups had suspended or called a halt to violence.
"The Continuity IRA, too, must now acknowledge that it is insanity to defy the Irish people and must also definitively end their anachronistic campaign.
"The government is determined to crush violence and ruthlessly to suppress any groups who persist in efforts to perpetrate it."
Ahern said it must now be put beyond doubt that as far as Irish nationalist or republican traditions are concerned, violence was over and done with, never again to be engaged or acquiesced in.
"Never again must a gap or conflict be seen to open up between Republicanism and democracy," he said.
Meanwhile, it is believed there are elements within the Real IRA or "RIRA" who want to proceed peacefully, while others are determined to lie low until the furor over Omagh has passed before resuming a violent campaign.
Many dissident Provisional IRA members in the Republic left to join the RIRA, with leakage stepping up after the Stormont Agreement of April 10. The Provisionals have remained solid, however, in Northern urban areas such as Belfast and Derry.