The Irish Republican Army has begun the disarmament process, one day after the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, asked the group to disarm in order to save the Northern Ireland peace process. The move is being welcomed as a milestone in the peace process.

IRA disarmament has been one of the most contentious issues blocking full implementation of the three-and-a-half-year-old Good Friday peace agreement.

In a statement, the IRA said it is taking the "unprecedented" move to "save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions."

The international body overseeing the disarmament process confirmed that the IRA has begun to disarm.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the move a "milestone" in the peace process. He commended the efforts of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to achieve this important step in what Mr. Blair called a "long journey of peace."

Mr. Blair said, "It has been done, not out of weakness, but from the strength that comes from recognition that there is a new dispensation - that we can resolve differences politically and that the only aims that ever should, or indeed ever really can succeed, are those pursued by democratic and peaceful debate."

Mr. Blair says those committed to the peace process should not allow it to be derailed by acts of violence.

The province's leading Protestant politician, David Trimble, met with the head of the international disarmament oversight committee late Tuesday to hear first hand whether the IRA was following through. He called the IRA move "significant."

Mr. Trimble said he would recommend at a meeting Saturday of his party's leadership that it support a move to reconvene the executive committee, from which he withdrew his ministers last week out of frustration over the disarmament issue.

Mr. Trimble said, "We, of course, remain committed to the agreement, committed to the full implementation of the agreement, the full functioning of the agreement. And we look forward to that now happening. We were told this day wouldn't happen, and it has happened. And while it's just the beginning of a process, and it is the beginning of a process, and the commission assured us they believed it to be the beginning of a process. There will no doubt be a lot of work for the commission to do in bringing it to fruition."

Without the start of disarmament now, Northern Ireland's governing body would have faced suspension on Thursday followed by an unknown future.