- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

DUBLIN (AP) — The last British troops withdrew yesterday from the Northern Ireland borderland long known as “bandit country,” ending a 37-year mission to keep watch over the Irish Republican Army’s most dangerous power base.

Soldiers from the second battalion of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment left Bessbrook Mill in what their commander, Col. Wayne Harber, called a final act in “the longest military campaign in the army’s history.”

“We are pleased to be going and that the peace process is progressing. Soldiers know the importance of peace more than anybody else,” Col. Harber said.

The overall commander of the remaining 5,600 troops in Northern Ireland, Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, said the threat posed by IRA dissident groups did not require “large numbers of troops based in bases around the country.” He said their infrequent, largely abortive efforts to mount bomb and gun attacks could be combated most effectively by police aided by anti-terrorist intelligence agencies.

“The dissidents are not a worthy target for a military force,” Gen. Parker said.

In 1970, British soldiers converted the 19th-century stone mill into a fortress. Bessbrook Mill became the launching pad for helicopter-borne operations throughout South Armagh, a predominantly Catholic region midway between Belfast and Dublin dubbed “bandit country.”

The official closure of Bessbrook Mill, for decades the busiest heliport in Europe, reflects dramatic recent progress in Northern Ireland’s 14-year-old peace process.

The outlawed IRA, long committed to forcing Northern Ireland out of Britain, officially quit in 2005 and surrendered its largely Libyan-supplied stocks of weaponry. Britain, in turn, began a program to cut its Northern Ireland military garrison back to a “peacetime” level of 5,000 by the end of July 2007.

Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said the closure “marks a key step” in Britain’s commitment “to remove 37 years’ worth of military infrastructure.”

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