UVF mural in North Belfast

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The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commando in Northern Ireland today announced that they had decommissioned their weapons.

The move, which has been welcomed by parties across the political divide, comes ahead of an anticipated similar move by the Ulster Defense Association (UDA).

The three groups have been under increasing pressure to make such an announcement before an August deadline on the current amnesty.

The amnesty means that anyone handling illegal arms is immune from prosecution as long as they are handling the weapons to decommission them.

The secretary of state for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward had warned the three groups that he was tired of their "foot-dragging" on the issue and was ready to end the amnesty in August.

Indeed, a report from an independent monitoring group last month had raised questions about the Loyalist groups' seriousness towards decommissioning.

Today, Woodward said that the announcement was the "culmination of a long and difficult process."

"The leadership of the UVF and RHC have delivered on what they said they would do...and have clearly signaled that loyalism has nothing to fear and is confident in the political institutions and wants to play a positive role in the future of Northern Ireland."

He said the groups had made a "bold and courageous decision," and urged the UDA to continue.

"For those who have doubted the political process, it is proof that the politics works and that guns have no place in a normal society." he said. "This is proof that decommissioning works and today's acts of leadership (are) further testimony to the transformation in Northern Ireland."

The UVF however made clear it was not dropping its belief that Northern Ireland would never be part of Ireland.

In a statement, the group said: 'We have done so to further augment the establishment of accountable democratic governance in this region of the UK, to remove the pretext that loyalist weaponry is an obstacle to the development of our communities and to compound our legacy of integrity to the peace process.'

The UDA confirmed that it had started decommissioning saying: "This is a courageous and unprecedented move that is part of a wider transition from conflict to peace.

'By carrying out this act we are helping to build a new and better Northern Ireland where conflict is a thing of the past.'

The Irish Government said today would be a landmark while the British Government said it was historic.

Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said: "Today is an important landmark in this process. Northern Ireland has now moved closer to achieving the genuinely shared future for which many people have taken risks over the past decades.

"I wish to express the Government's appreciation to the loyalist leadership and all those who took crucial and courageous decisions to facilitate today's step forward."

President Mary McAleese said: 'This is a very important step in building and consolidating peace in Northern Ireland and signals a turning away from a culture of conflict towards a culture of good neighbourliness, within Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland.'

And in the North, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) Dawn Purvis said: "This is a truly momentous day in the history of progressive loyalism. The decommissioning of all weapons by the UVF and RHC shows that peaceful, stable, inclusive democracy is the way forward for our country."

The UVF was set up in 1966 while the The Red Hand Commando was a splinter group.

The UDA, with up to 5,000 members is the biggest loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. The US State Department says it is now primarily a drug trafficking organization although it has continued to target the Catholic community.