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END OF MAZE; Last terrorists freed as police seize arms haul heading for renegades.

ULSTER'S notorious Maze prison was virtually empty last night after a mass release of terrorists.

But the peace move was tempered by news that police had foiled a new bomb plot aimed at Britain.

A deadly cargo of guns and explosives on its way to a breakaway IRA group was seized in Croatia.

The horror plan was revealed as 78 Republicans and Loyalists left the jail in batches.

Among the many freed killers were Docklands bomber James McCardle, Shankill Road bomber Sean Kelly and Bernard McGinn, a member of the gang of snipers that shot dead young soldier Stephen Restorick.

The men were released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Inmates on all sides pledged themselves to peace and for no return to the province's 30 years of conflict.

They left behind an 800-cell prison holding just 15 convicts - most of who will be freed in the coming months.

Champagne corks popped and party streamers were thrown as hundreds of Republican supporters and relatives welcomed 46 IRA men to freedom. McCardle, whose bomb shattered the first IRA ceasefire in 1996, was freed only after a Royal Prerogative of Mercy was signed by the Queen on Government advice.

Jim McVeigh, the IRA commander in the prison, read a statement on behalf of his men.

He said: "We walk free from this prison camp, as have our comrades before us, proud Republicans, unbowed and unbroken."

Insisting they supported the peace process, he added: "As Republicans who have experienced suffering, we understand well the hurt of others.

"We offer the sincere hand of friendship to everyone who is prepared to help build a new future for all our people."

Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly, who met the men, said the Republican struggle was now one of politics. No one need fear IRA men back on the streets, he said.

Leading Loyalist Johnny Adair welcomed out Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Defence Association men.

He said: "I hope it is the end of the conflict, the end of the Maze - no more suffering, no more pain and no more young men having to go back to jail."

Also freed were members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

The prisoners were released in batches over a period of three hours to make sure rival factions did not clash.

The deal, which Ulster Secretary Peter Mandelson described as a "bitter pill to swallow", came as it was revealed that Irish police seized a gun-running gang in Split, Croatia.

Their deadly haul was on its way to the breakaway Real IRA.

The group is believed to have carried out the recent attack on Hammersmith Bridge

DOCKLANDS BOMBER

NAME: James McCardle

SENTENCE: 25 years

SERVED: four years

RESTORICK SNIPER

NAME: Bernard McGinn

SENTENCE: 490 years

SERVED: One year

SHANKILL BOMBER

NAME: Sean Kelly

SENTENCE: Nine life terms

SERVED: Five years
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Author:Macmahon, Peter
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 29, 2000
Words:475
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