DUBLIN, Nov 11 (Reuters) Northern Ireland's largest Protestant paramilitary group said today it would stand down its active units from midnight and put its weaponry beyond use.
The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) said in a statement read at a parade in Belfast that all of its active armed service Ulster Freedom Fighter units, would be stood down with all military intelligence destroyed.
''As a consequence of this, all weaponry will be put beyond use,'' it said, without giving any timeframe.
''The Ulster Defence Association believes the war is over and we are in a democratic dispensation that will lead to permanent political stability,'' the statement said.
The UDA made a similar pledge to end violence in 2004.
A 1998 peace deal largely ended 30 years of violence in which 3,600 people were killed in a conflict between majority Protestants, committed to ties with Britain, and a Catholic minority in favour of a united Ireland.
In May, Catholic and Protestant politicians, arch foes for decades, entered into a power-sharing government. Sporadic violence has continued with paramilitary groups posing a challenge.
Earlier this year the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the other major loyalist Protestant paramilitary group, said it would put ''beyond reach'' weapons it used against Catholics opposed to British rule in the province.
The move followed disarmament by the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA), which pledged in 2005 to dump its arms and pursue its goal of a united Ireland through peaceful means.
A report by Northern Ireland's weapons watchdog said on Wednesday the UVF needed to go beyond a pledge simply to put its weapons beyond use and fully disarm in a verifiable way as the IRA had done. It said internal splits within the UDA meant it had failed to move its ranks onto the path of peace.
Apart from drug-dealing and loan-sharking, UDA members had been involved in the shooting of a police officer in July and rioting in August, the report said.
The UDA said those involved in crime had to be ''rooted out''.
''The drug dealers must go,'' senior UDA commander Jackie McDonald told around 1,000 members and supporters at the parade.
''If you can't shoot them, shop them. Don't think anyone is an informer if they tell the (police) where the drugs are.'' Last month Northern Ireland's Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie ended a 1.2 million pounds (2.53 million dollars) community funding project aimed at helping UDA members move away from their past.
THE BALLOT BOX The UDA said it will defend itself ''by non-violent means''.
''The ballot box and the political institutions must be the greatest weapons,'' it said in the statement today.
Britain's Northern Ireland minister Shaun Woodward said the UDA announcement was ''extremely significant''. ''We all want to see decommissioning,'' he told reporters.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, ''warmly'' welcomed the move by the UDA, which he said ''carried out appalling atrocities'' during the conflict.
Ahern said he sought ''early engagement'' by the UDA with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD).
The UDA's McDonald told public broadcaster RTE it had ''made the commitment'' to talk with the IICD's head, retired Canadian General John de Chastelain, ''in the future'' over its weapons.
McDonald said at the parade, marking Britain's remembrance day of its war dead, there was still mistrust among members.
''They are not the UDA's guns, they are people's guns and the people don't want to give them up,'' he said.
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