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UK troops withdraw from base in N Ireland

world Updated: Jun 25, 2007 18:30 IST

AP
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The final British troops withdrew on Monday from the South Armagh borderland of Northern Ireland, ending a 37-year mission to keep watch over the Irish Republican Army's most dangerous power base.

Soldiers from the second battalion of Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment departed Bessbrook Mill in what their commander, Col Wayne Harber, called a final act in "the longest military campaign in the army's history."

"We are pleased to be going and that the peace process is progressing. Soldiers know the importance of peace more than anybody else," said Harber, who noted that many soldiers also felt nostalgic about leaving a post many had learned to loathe.

Since the early 1970s Bessbrook Mill has been the launching pad for helicopter-borne operations throughout South Armagh, a predominantly Catholic region midway between Belfast and Dublin long known as "bandit country."

The official closure of Bessbrook Mill, for decades the busiest heliport in Europe, reflects the dramatically changed security fortunes in Northern Ireland.

The outlawed IRA, long committed to forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, officially quit in 2005 and surrendered its largely Libyan-supplied stocks of weaponry. Britain, in turn, launched a programme to cut its Northern Ireland military garrison back to "peacetime" level of 5000 by the end of July 2007.

The central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 998 -- a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party -- was revived in May and has been operating harmoniously.

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