BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The Irish Republican Army has scrapped more guns and explosives in a secret ceremony, North American weapons inspectors announced Monday, to the praise of politicians from Britain and Ireland.
The widely expected move -- more than five months after the shadowy organization made history by starting down the road to disarmament -- bolstered the key achievement of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, a Catholic-Protestant government that includes the IRA's Sinn Fein party.
"It is time to recognize that profoundly important progress is being made, and the Good Friday agreement is achieving results that are good for all the people of Northern Ireland," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
Retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who has led Northern Ireland's independent disarmament commission since 1997, said he and his American deputy, diplomat Andrew Sens, had "witnessed an event in which the IRA leadership has put a varied and substantial quantity of ammunition, arms and explosive material beyond use."
De Chastelain said he couldn't specify when or where the disarmament took place, nor the method used, because the IRA was insisting on releasing no details.
David Trimble, the Northern Ireland government leader who has long battled Protestant hard-liners opposed to Sinn Fein's participation in Cabinet, welcomed the IRA move as evidence the group would gradually surrender its entire arsenal of stockpiled weapons.
And Trimble, whose Ulster Unionist Party represents a narrow majority of the province's Protestants, said the IRA actions must spur outlawed Protestant groups "to start their own process."
In Washington, President Bush also welcomed the disarmament announcement and urged all paramilitary organizations to decommission their weapons and abstain from obtaining additional ones.
Like the IRA, such groups were supposed to get rid of their own less elaborate arms supplies in support of the 1998 pact.
But unlike Sinn Fein, the Protestant outlaws' politicians have won little electoral support, weakening any leverage they might have to deliver disarmament from their quarter. Attacks on Catholics, chiefly involving crude homemade pipe bombs, have escalated in the past year.
In October, the IRA's confirmation that it had begun a process to put weapons "beyond use" -- a deliberately vague term that could mean their handover, destruction or sealing in concrete -- persuaded the Ulster Unionists not to topple Northern Ireland's government.
It also spurred Britain to accelerate its program of dismantling military installations, a process begun following the IRA's 1997 cease-fire.
This time, analysts agreed that the IRA acted specifically to boost Sinn Fein's chances of winning parliamentary seats in an election next month in the neighboring Republic of Ireland. Ahern was expected to specify a polling date later this week.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told a news conference the IRA move was "not a mere election stunt. It's too big an issue."
Speaking alongside Arthur Morgan, one of Sinn Fein's parliamentary candidates, Adams said the IRA was "leading by example" and expected Britain to make fresh gestures in response. "We've only to look at the Middle East to see that the imperative of peacemaking must prevail," he said.
One of Sinn Fein's immediate demands is for Britain to grant an amnesty to a few dozen people wanted on outstanding IRA charges. Among them is Rita O'Hare, Sinn Fein's chief representative in the United States, who jumped bail in 1972, while awaiting trial for the attempted murder of British soldiers.
De Chastelain said he believed the IRA was "on the path to peace." But he also expressed frustration that the hidden IRA arsenal -- involving an estimated three tons of plastic explosive, detonators, rockets and thousands of guns -- was taking so long to neutralize. The Good Friday pact had envisioned a conclusion to disarmament by mid-2000.
"Our patience has been tried and our expectations strained," he said. "Clearly we need something that's regular, convincing and has an end in mind. We would like to see this moving faster than it is moving. We have been here for a very long time."