Britain finally says sorry for Bloody Sunday killings

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British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised Tuesday for the Bloody Sunday killings, one of the darkest days in Northern Ireland's history, calling them "unjustified and unjustifiable."

As a long-awaited report into the shootings of 13 civilians by British troops in 1972 was published to joy from victims' families, he said none of the victims were armed and soldiers gave no warning before opening fire.

"There is no doubt... what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong," he told the House of Commons in London.

"Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly," he said. "The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry."

Cameron's apology was greeted with cheers from relatives and thousands of supporters listening to him on a huge screen in Londonderry, where the notorious shootings took place.

Amid jubilant scenes in Northern Ireland's second city, relatives took turns to voice their relief that their 38-year campaign to clear their loved ones' names had been vindicated.

"Now the world knows the truth," said Liam Wray. "Jim was murdered, Jim was innocent". The report found Jim Wray was shot in the back, probably as he lay already gravely wounded, with "no possible justification".

The killings, when British soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march in Londonderry, was one of the most controversial incidents in Northern Ireland's history, and there had been fears the 5,000-page report could re-open wounds.

More than 3,500 people died during The Troubles, which were largely ended by a 1998 peace deal, but emotions still run high in Northern Ireland over its violent history, which pitched Catholics against Protestants.

The inquiry, which took 12 years to report at a cost of more than 190 million pounds (275 million dollars, 230 million euros), aimed to paint a full picture of events.

It was commissioned by then premier Tony Blair in 1998 as the peace process gained momentum and headed by senior judge Mark Saville after a 1972 probe, immediately after the killings, was dismissed as a whitewash.

Key conclusions of the new report include:

- "The firing by soldiers of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury."

- "What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed."

- "Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland."

- Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness -- an IRA commander at the time -- was there on Bloody Sunday, probably armed with a sub-machine gun which he may have fired. But the report said he did nothing to provoke soldiers opening fire.

The inquiry heard from more than 900 witnesses and received statements from around 2,500 people. The evidence ran to an estimated 20-30 million words. It is the longest-running and most expensive public inquiry in British history.

In Washington, a US State Department spokesman welcomed the report.

"We recognise the deep and enduring pain of those who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday and throughout Northern Ireland's conflict in all communities," he said.

"We hope that the completion of the independent inquiry's work and publication of its report will contribute to Northern Ireland's ongoing transformation from a turbulent past to a peaceful future."

The mainly Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose leader Peter Robinson is Northern Ireland's first minister, has been critical of the inquiry, saying it has created a "hierarchy of victims" in Northern Ireland.

"Whilst Lord Saville was investigating Bloody Sunday, there are thousands of other victims who have seen their cases virtually ignored," said local DUP lawmaker Gregory Campbell.

"There were over 3,500 people killed during what we call the Troubles and there are hundreds of unsolved cases right across the province, yet we see hundreds of millions of pounds spent investigating less than two dozen of those deaths."

© 2010 AFP

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