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Promising a possible end to 24 years of killing, the Irish Republican Army began a cease-fire Thursday, but Britain ruled out peace talks until it is assured the violence has stopped for good.

In Belfast, minority Roman Catholics reacted with joy to the IRA announcement. Members of the Protestant majority expressed disbelief and suspicion.Several hundred Catholics banged garbage can lids and cheered outside police stations and army barracks as clocks struck midnight, signaling the start of the cease-fire. Youths climbed poles of police surveillance cameras, decorating them with Irish flags. Others blocked traffic and jumped atop vehicles as soldiers looked on.

"Midnight tonight was the first step towards lasting peace," said John Hume, the moderate Catholic leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

British Prime Minister John Major said the IRA's pledge on Wednesday to stop attacks on Protestants and British troops in Northern Ireland was "very welcome" but called for an "unambiguous statement that violence is over."

However, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the British Cabinet official responsible for Northern Ireland, said Thursday that Britain would settle for less.

He said the IRA could, for example, simply say Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds was correct in his assessment that the cease-fire is complete and "that there can be no going back."

Officials in the Irish Republic took a positive view of an article in Thursday's Irish Times by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political party ally of the IRA.

"Albert Reynolds, (Irish Foreign Minister) Dick Spring, John Hume and others have responded positively and correctly to the IRA announcement," Adams wrote. Those leaders have accepted that the cease-fire is permanent.

IRA units carried out three reported gun attacks in the two hours before the cease-fire deadline, but no one was hurt, police said.

Leaders of Protestant groups - known as "unionists" for their desire to keep Northern Ireland part of Britain - immediately called the cease-fire inadequate, saying the IRA needed to make it permanent and hand over its weapons before its political wing, Sinn Fein, could join talks.

"Unionist parties will not be sitting down with Sinn Fein before Christmas. That is just complete nonsense," said Chris McGimpsey, a key strategist for the Ulster Unionists, the largest pro-British party.

The unionists suspect a secret deal between British officials and Sinn Fein triggered the IRA truce.