BELFAST — Scores of Northern Ireland's most hardened guerrillas walked free Friday when Britain virtually emptied the notorious Maze prison to bolster the peace process in the province.
Leading guerrillas from both sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide were among the 86 prisoners who were released, many having served only a fraction of their sentences.
One was the Irish Republican Army's James McArdle, sentenced to 25 years over the devastating 1996 London Docklands bombing.
Another was IRA gunman Martin Mines, who famously shouted "see you in 18 months" when sentenced only last year to 50 years for conspiracy to murder and possessing arms.
Also released were IRA snipers and bombers who killed British troops and pro-British guerrillas responsible for mass shootings targeting Catholics during the 30-year conflict known as the "Troubles."
All qualified for early release from long sentences because their guerrilla groups support the 1998 Good Friday peace accord and are respecting cease-fires.
The Protestant "loyalist" prisoners stepped out of the Maze before the Catholic republican inmates in a choreographed operation to avoid any confrontation between the rival groups.
Jim McVeigh, leader of the IRA inmates in the prison who had been serving 31 years for conspiracy to murder and possessing arms, issued a defiant statement after his release.
"We walk free from this prison camp as have our comrades before us, proud republicans, unbowed and unbroken," he said.
"On behalf of all republican prisoners, I would like to extend our solidarity and thanks to the IRA for their role in the struggle for freedom."
Gerry Kelly of the IRA's political ally Sinn Fein paid tribute to the likes of IRA icon Bobby Sands, who died in the Maze in 1981 while on hunger strike in protest at the policies of Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister.
The leader of Northern Ireland's coalition government, David Trimble, stressed the releases were conditional, and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson warned he would not hesitate to send the prisoners back if they reoffended.
"People like Mr McArdle and all the others being released today are not being given an amnesty, they are being let out on license on condition they do not re-engage in violence or paramilitary activity," Mandelson told BBC television.
Former Protestant guerrilla leader Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, who was waiting outside the jail to meet the freed loyalists, hoped violence was over for good after a virtual civil war that claimed some 3,600 lives during three decades.
"I hope that is the end of the conflict and that is the end of the Maze," Adair said as dozens of friends and relatives of loyalist prisoners stood outside the prison's turnstile gate.
Of the 86 male inmates, 78 were freed from the Maze and eight from other jails. The group comprised 53 republicans, including 46 IRA guerrillas, and 33 loyalists from various armed groups.
Just 15 guerrillas from an array of armed groups will be left in the Maze—western Europe's biggest guerrilla jail in the 1980s when it housed some 800 inmates.
The remaining prisoners were ruled to be ineligible under the Good Friday peace pact's early prisoner release scheme.
The Maze is due to close by the end of the year when any inmates will be transferred to other prisons, the Northern Ireland Office said.
The Irish republic also freed an inmate Friday under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Padraig Steenson had been jailed in May for seven years for storing explosives for the IRA.
Including Friday's releases, a total of 428 loyalist and pro-Irish republican guerrillas have been freed under the 1998 accord—drawn up to give the province new hope after 30 years of sectarian strife.