A Minute Of Silence

British paratrooper grabs protester during Bloody Sunday march, 1972
Relatives of 13 people slain by British soldiers observed a minute's silence Wednesday at the spot of the 1972 massacre, which fueled Catholic support for the Irish Republican Army 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 of Bloody Sunday.

Exactly 30 years before 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 bitterly disputed circumstances.

A 1972 inquiry ruled that the soldiers' firing appeared reckless but that at least some of those slain 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. No soldier suffered injuries, while five of their civilian victims were fatally shot in the back.

A new investigation, which has been gathering evidence since 1998 with its headquarters in Londonderry's nearby Guildhall, paused its 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 the former soldiers who opened fire.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his authorization of the new probe, which has already cost British taxpayers more than $90 million, mostly to pay the fees of lawyers.

Gerald Howarth, an opposition lawmaker whose constituency includes the Parachute Regiment's English headquarters, contended that the new probe "has served only to reopen deep wounds that should have been allowed to heal."

"One of the reasons for having the inquiry was that the wounds have not healed," countered Blair, who 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 calendar anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the major commemoration in Londonderry was scheduled for this Sunday, when tens of thousands of people are expected to retrace most of the route of the 1972 protest.

Bloody Sunday campaigners claim there was a 14th fatality, 59-year-old John Johnston, who was the first person shot that day. Johnson, who had been hit in the legs and arms, died on June 16, 1972, from a brain tumor.

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