LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (AP) Relatives of 13 persons slain by British soldiers 30 years ago observed a minute of silence Wednesday at the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, which fueled Catholic support for the IRA and worldwide anger at Britain’s role in Northern Ireland.
In an icy breeze and fading winter light, more than 3,000 people gathered in Londonderry’s Bogside district at a gray stone memorial to the dead.
On Jan. 30, 1972, soldiers from Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment stormed into the area at the end of a major illegal demonstration and opened fire in circumstances that have been bitterly disputed ever since.
A 1972 inquiry ruled that the soldiers appeared to have fired recklessly, but that some of those who were killed had been firing weapons or throwing homemade grenades. That verdict, since retracted by Britain, infuriated witnesses, who said the soldiers fired without sufficient provocation on an unarmed crowd. None of the soldiers was injured, while five of the civilian dead had been shot in the back.
The Irish Republican Army responded with an onslaught in Northern Ireland that contributed to 1972’s death toll of 496, including 134 soldiers by far the bloodiest year of the conflict, which is fueled by animosity between Catholics and Protestants over whether the province should remain British or join Ireland.
Investigators in a new probe that began in 1998, with its headquarters near the massacre site, paused their deliberations Wednesday as a mark of respect to the families commemorating their dead.
The Bloody Sunday inquiry led by judges from England, Australia and Canada expects to publish conclusions in 2004 after hearing testimony from more than 1,000 people, among them former soldiers who opened fire.
In London, Gerald Howarth, an opposition British lawmaker whose constituency includes the Parachute Regiment’s English headquarters, contended that the new investigation “has served only to reopen deep wounds that should have been allowed to heal.”
Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his authorization of the new probe.
“One of the reasons for having the inquiry was that the wounds have not healed,” Mr. Blair said. He called it important “to get to the truth of what happened, even though it happened a long time ago, because what happened a long time ago affects the present time as well.”
Although Wednesday was the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the major commemoration in Londonderry is scheduled today, when tens of thousands of people are expected to retrace most of the route of the 1972 protest.
Bloody Sunday campaigners say there was a 14th fatality, John Johnston, 59, who was the first person shot that day. Mr. Johnson, who was hit in the legs and arms, died in June 1972 of a brain tumor.