Loyalist paramilitary groups in the North could be on the verge of decommissioning their weapons, it was claimed today.
The paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) have been under pressure for some time to begin dumping their guns after the IRA's decision to dispose of their weapons four years ago.
It is understood General John de Chastelain, head of the decommissioning body which oversaw the IRA process of disarmament, is in Belfast and has met senior loyalists.
A spokesman for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) said: "We have no comment at this stage other than we expect to be reporting to the government at the end of August."
Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey said: "This is something that we have been working on for the last few years and it shows the progress that Northern Ireland has made.
"Although the timing is somewhat later than we had hoped, we do welcome this move as the way forward and we will be working on the ground to ensure that it is completed.
"This is another piece of the jigsaw - this will see Northern Ireland becoming the place in which we all want to live."
Amid mounting claims that the UVF had decommissioned weapons and speculation regarding the status of the UDA, politicians in the North welcomed the prospect of illegal guns being taken off the streets.
Alliance Party leader David Ford said: "This appears to be a significant development. Progress from loyalist paramilitaries was needed and I hope there can be swift and full decommissioning.
"For decades, paramilitary groups from both sides have held communities in their grip of fear. I hope that this move will lead to the end, not simply another endgame."
He added: "Loyalists are now at the point where they must comply with the IICD before the expiry of the six-month deadline handed down by the Secretary of State.
"If they do comply, they have the opportunity to play a full part in civil and political life, if not, the consequences are clear.
"We need to see all paramilitaries decommission arms, but loyalists in particular need to prove that they are serious about maintaining a permanent peace."
The North's Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde today hailed loyalist decommissioning as "good news", adding: "It think it is very significant."