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After a hard-fought compromise with wary Protestants, former Sen. George Mitchell took the chairman's seat Wednesday at Northern Ireland peace talks. Protestant hard-liners promptly walked out.

The after-midnight drama followed 15 hours of backroom haggling with the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists led by David Trimble, who finally agreed to let Mitchell lead the negotiations on the future of the disputed province.But 12 delegates from the other two Protestant parties represented at the talks stormed out of the hall in protest.

The aim of the talks is to strike a compromise on governing Northern Ireland - one that will end the sectarian violence that has killed 3,200 people since 1969.

Leaders of the rival Protestant parties traded barbs as the talks resumed several hours later. The Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists returned, although he said he would not attend any sessions chaired by Mitchell.

"Mr. Trimble was told every door in America would be closed against him unless he had Mitchell in the chair. That's why he accepted. He couldn't even go home and sleep about it," Paisley said.

But Trimble told reporters it was time to move on in the talks.

"This business will go on for a long time and people should settle in for a long haul and not throw their heads up at the first difficulty," he said.

The three Protestant parties had opposed Mitchell's nomination by the British and Irish governments to lead the search for a settlement in Northern Ireland, where majority Protestants demand the province's continued union with Britain. They believe Mitchell and President Clinton favor their enemies in the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams considers Mitchell's leadership important to reassuring the Irish Republican Army - which ended its cease-fire Feb. 9 with a truck bomb in London - to formally resume its truce. Until it does, Sinn Fein remains barred from the negotiations.

As soon as he took his seat, Mitchell asked each leader of the seven remaining parties to pledge their "total and absolute commitment to all the principles of democracy and nonviolence." They complied.

The Ulster Unionists dropped their opposition to Mitchell early Wednesday in exchange for the right to review the chairman's powers and the agenda for talks. All the ground rules previously set down by the two governments now will be renegotiated.

Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Bob McCartney's United Kingdom Unionists were incensed by the deal. Paisley and McCartney had thought they could veto Mitchell's chairmanship but the British decided "sufficient consensus" had been reached to install him.

"McCartney really went nuclear. He almost reached meltdown," said senior Ulster Unionist negotiator Ken Maginnis.

Mitchell entered with Canada's Gen. John de Chastelain and former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri.