LONDON - Honoring a promise to promote peace in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army announced yesterday that it had opened its secret arms dumps to international weapons inspectors.
The guerrilla group's landmark action to give outsiders access to its arsenal removes one of the major obstacles to a durable peace in Northern Ireland.
The opening was confirmed by the inspectors, who briefed British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The timing and details of the inspection, including location and how it was accomplished, were not released.
The IRA also announced that it had re-established contact with the international panel that is to oversee the handing over of the weapons. That panel is headed by former Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.'This initiative demonstrates once more our commitment to securing a just and lasting peace," the IRA said in a statement.
British officials reacted optimistically to the breakthrough.
"I'd describe it as a turning point," Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said. 'The IRA would never let anyone ... anywhere near their arms. This is an all-time first."
Calling the arms inspection "a very substantial further step along the road to a lasting peace," Blair said that the 'whole process of decommissioning" - disarmament - "has to be gone through."
"I don't think you can say a positive, precise moment now at which the peace process will be finished, but you can say that it is looking a lot more optimistic than it did a few months ago," Blair said.
Blair talked by telephone yesterday with President Clinton and told him about the development.
"I urge all paramilitary organizations and political parties to build on this progress," the president said. "I believe all the people of Northern Ireland should take heart from these harbingers of lasting peace."
Northern Ireland's peace process has been hamstrung over the issue of getting gunmen to hand over their weapons. The deadlock imperiled the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which envisioned guerrilla disarmament in May.
On May 6, the IRA made its overture to allow inspection of its arsenal of guns, bombs and detonators, the bulk of which is believed buried in bunkers in the Irish republic. It promised to put its weapons "verifiably beyond use."
For a group wedded to the gun, the gesture marked an historic turning point.
It also provided an impetus for Northern Ireland's main pro-British, Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to narrowly agree to return to the power-sharing government set-up in the province.
The arms inspectors, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress' former secretary-general, filed their report to the panel led by de Chastelain.
Without providing details or answering further questions from the news media, the men said they were shown "a number of arms dumps."'The arms dumps held a substantial amount of military material, including explosives and related equipment, as well as weapons and other material," the report said.
The inspectors said that "the weapons and explosives were safely and adequately stored. We have ensured that the weapons and explosives can not be used without our detection."
The inspectors said they were "satisfied with the cooperation extended" by the IRA and that "all our requests were satisfactorily met."
They plan to "re-inspect the arms dumps on a regular basis to ensure that the weapons have remained secure."
"The process that led to the first inspection visit and the way in which it was carried out makes us believe that this is a genuine effort by the IRA to advance the peace process," the inspectors said.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, called the inspection an "unprecedented initiative."
Ken Maginnis, an Ulster Unionist security spokesman and member of the British parliament, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that "this is a good step forward." He said the IRA's appointment of a go-between to meet with de Chastelain's panel "means that the process is still alive."
Ian Paisley, Jr., whose father leads the Democratic Unionist Party, called the IRA statement "a complete and total gimmick and not a complete and total cease-fire."
Also yesterday, Northern Ireland authorities banned the Protestant Orange Order from marching through a Roman Catholic neighborhood when it stages a parade in the volatile Drumcree area July 2.
The Parades Commission said it had imposed the ban to avoid a "risk of disorder" in the area about 40 miles southwest of Belfast.
The commission has yet to announce a decision on the Orange Order's main annual Drumcree parade July 9, a major sectarian flashpoint in past years.
Reuters contributed to this article.