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N. Ireland group says its violence is history

After decades of killings, the Protestant force said it now wants to do good. Some are skeptical.

DUBLIN, Ireland - The Ulster Volunteer Force, an underground Protestant army that terrorized Roman Catholics for decades and committed the bloodiest attack of the Northern Ireland conflict, renounced violence yesterday and promised to evolve into a force for good.

Leaders of the British territory's Catholic minority welcomed the surprise announcement. But they also expressed skepticism, given the UVF's hate-fueled past and criminal present, as well as its breaches of its own 1994 cease-fire declaration.

The British, Irish and U.S. governments all called on UVF commanders to demonstrate their sincerity by surrendering weapons stockpiles, an act completed two years ago by the rival Irish Republican Army.

"This is a real end for the Ulster Volunteer Force," said Gusty Spence, the founding father of the UVF, who read the statement to a Belfast news conference. "The steps outlined today in this statement, I truly believe, will bring us closer to the peaceful, democratic, prosperous future that all our people deserve."

UVF members killed more than 400 Catholic civilians from 1966 to 1994, the year the group called an open-ended truce. It exploded four car bombs in the neighboring Republic of Ireland that killed 33 people on May 17, 1974 - the deadliest such strike in four decades of sectarian bloodshed over Northern Ireland.

Spence, 73, said yesterday that, with hindsight, much of what the UVF did was misguided and had consigned two generations to a spiral of tit-for-tat bloodshed. "My whole life is strewn with regrets," he said.

The UVF statement came just five days before a new Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland is scheduled to take office in Belfast, fulfilling the central dream of power-sharing contained in the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

Spence said that the UVF had abandoned recruiting, training and intelligence-gathering and that all of its units "have been deactivated." He said the group would also "assume a non-military, civilianized role" in its working-class Protestant power bases beginning today, and looked forward to working on community improvement projects with British government support.

Crucially, however, Spence said that while UVF commanders had placed the group's weapons "beyond reach" of its rank-and-file members, the UVF was not ready to surrender its arsenal to the disarmament program overseen by retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.

Since 1997, de Chastelain has been trying to persuade Northern Ireland's armed gangs to give up their weapons and open talks with him. The governments in Dublin, London and Washington backed the general.

The latest report of the International Monitoring Commission, published April 25, said the UVF remained deeply involved in extortion, counterfeiting and petty assaults, but was withdrawing from drug-dealing. According to authorities, the UVF has killed about 540 people in all.