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Headway made in N. Irish meetings

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Britain and Ireland said headway was made in easing a deadlock in the Northern Irish peace process during four-hour talks with the province's main parties Friday.

Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern said all the parties to the stalled Good Friday agreement had backed fundamental principles including guerrilla disarmament by May 2000 and the creation of a power-sharing provincial cabinet.Ahern told journalists as he and Blair left the talks venue, Castle Buildings in Belfast: "While there are still differences, there has been some progress."

As parties left, there were still clear gaps between them on core issues, and political sources said the scene was set for a fresh push to end the impasse in resumed talks next week.

Blair and Ahern had arrived for crisis talks to try and bridge a gap between pro-British unionists and Sinn Fein republicans to enable the full implementation of the accord by a deadline of next Wednesday.

Blair, standing beside Ahern on the steps of the building, said the talks with the parties had been "constructive and good natured" and they would resume next Monday.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of IRA guerrillas, said it had had "a good meeting" with the prime ministers and denied that it had changed tack on the need for disarmament.

David Trimble, the province's First Minister and leader of the powerful Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), protested that he had not yet heard Sinn Fein commit itself to the "decommissioning" (disarmament) of weapons held by its Irish Republican Army (IRA) ally.

"There can be no question of bringing a private army into the heart of the administration unless it has shown it is going to turn its back irrevocably on violence and has demonstrated that by actions," Trimble told reporters.

Blair in a newspaper had warned that the province was "staring in the abyss" if the parties did not resolve their differences.

In a bid to kick-start the stalled process, Blair put forward a plan that could pave the way for Sinn Fein to enter a ruling provincial cabinet if the IRA gave and stuck by firm pledges that it would fully disarm by May 2000.