Belfast, July 16--(AP) The Irish Republican Army issued an unprecedented statement Tuesday apologizing for the deaths of "noncombatants" that it had caused over 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

The British government quickly welcomed the statement from the outlawed organization, noting the strength of the apology, which comes at a time when the peace agreement forged in 1998 is under severe strain from continuing sectarian violence. Observers said the IRA gesture was designed to assuage Protestant anger over the continued involvement of the IRA linked-Sinn Fein Party in Northern Ireland's joint Protestant-Catholic government.

The IRA statement, faxed to Irish news organizations, noted that Sunday, July 21, is the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday - an IRA bombing in Belfast that killed seven civilians and two soldiers, and injured many more people. Although the IRA has stated its regret in the past for individual acts, it has not previously issued so sweeping an apology. "While it was not our intention to injure or kill noncombatants, the reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequence of our actions," it said.

"It is, therefore, appropriate on the anniversary of this tragic event, that we address all of the deaths and injuries of noncombatants caused by us," the statement said. "We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families."

In addition to the apology for killings of noncombatants, the organization acknowledged the grief and pain of the families of the combatants - police, soldiers and paramilitaries - killed during the violence. The IRA said the future would not be found in "denying collective failures and mistakes, or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who had been hurt. That includes all of the victims of the conflict, combatants and noncombatants. "It will not be achieved by creating a hierarchy of victims in which some are deemed more or less worthy than others."

The IRA said the process of conflict resolution required the equal acknowledgment of the grief and loss of others.

Britain's Cabinet secretary for Northern Ireland, John Reid, welcomed "the unprecedented strength of the apology." "We welcome this statement as an acknowledgment of the grief and pain suffered," he said, "but the best way to acknowledge the past pain is to make sure the people of Northern Ireland have the confidence that events like this will never happen again."

The IRA said the process of conflict resolution required the equal acknowledgment of the grief and loss of others. "On this anniversary, we are endeavoring to fulfill this responsibility to those we have hurt," it said. "The IRA is committed unequivocally to the search for freedom, justice and peace in Ireland," the statement said. "We remain totally committed to the peace process and to dealing with the challenges and difficulties which this presents. This includes the acceptance of past mistakes and of the hurt and pain we have caused to others."

Among the more than 3,600 people killed in political-sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic of Ireland since 1968, the IRA and rival anti-British groups were responsible for more than 2,000 dead.

Protestant political parties have accused the IRA of repeatedly violating its 1997 cease-fire, which was required before Sinn Fein could participate in the Northern Ireland peace process. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Northern Ireland's coalition government, expects Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair to toughen his policy on alleged violations of the IRA cease-fire and wants a response by July 24. Otherwise, he has warned that the power-sharing arrangement will unravel.

Eileen Bell of the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party called the statement "a positive step towards building greater confidence in the peace process." It was, she added, an important gesture of reconciliation at a delicate stage of the peace process. "An apology can never bring victims of violence back, but it is important that we all continue to make progress towards a normal society where all violence is a distant memory.

"While I hope this is the IRA's way of beginning to say that the war is over, there is still a real need for it to fully acknowledge the pain caused to all victims, including members of the security forces," she said.

But Jeffrey Donaldson a leading Protestant critic of the peace accord, called the statement a "halfhearted apology" that doesn't go far enough. He questioned whether the IRA was committed to the peace process, pointing to accusations that republicans had been involved in the recent shootings in east Belfast, the planning of street violence during the unionist marching season, and IRA involvement with guerrillas in Colombia.

The IRA has denied all these allegations.

"What we need to know is that there will be no more innocent people who will die at the hands of the IRA, either in Northern Ireland or elsewhere," Donaldson told RTE, the Irish broadcast network.

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