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NEGOTIATOR LEAVES ISLE, JOB UNDONE

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Former Sen. George Mitchell headed home Thursday uncertain when or how he could win the confidence of Protestants who accuse him of favoring the IRA's allies in talks on Northern Ireland.

Mitchell arrived in Ireland 10 days ago to lead negotiations aimed at resolving the province's bloodshed. But pro-British politicians, who consider him too sympathetic to the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party, prevented him from taking his chair for all but a few short sessions and stalled the talks before they began.Former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri will take Mitchell's seat when negotiations resume Monday. Mitchell returns Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for a truck bomb in Manchester, northwest England, that wounded more than 200 civilians.

In a statement late Wednesday from the Irish capital, the IRA expressed "regret" for the injuries in Saturday's attack, but blamed British authorities for reacting too slowly to telephoned warnings.

It said the IRA was "still prepared to enhance the democratic peace process" - a rhetorical suggestion that the outlawed group might call a new cease-fire if that would boost Sinn Fein's fortunes in negotiations.

But authorities in Northern Ireland fear the IRA will escalate its campaign.

For the first time in more than a year, British troops patrolled Catholic west Belfast, a Sinn Fein-IRA stronghold, on Wednesday. Roads connecting Catholic and Protestant areas were closed.

The goal of the Belfast negotiations is to find a way to govern Northern Ireland acceptable to both its pro-British Protestant majority and minority Catholics.