By Ivan Little
BESSBROOK, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - The Irish Republican Army was behind the shooting dead of 10 Protestant textile workers in 1976 in one of the deadliest of three decades of sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland, a state inquiry told relatives Tuesday.
The IRA has always denied involvement in the attack near the village of Kingsmills, county Armagh, in January 1976, when gunmen forced workers from a minibus on a rural road and shot them dead at close range.
"The only people to blame for this are the sectarian gunmen belonging to the Provisional IRA who murdered them simply because they were Protestant," said Dave Cox, head of the Historical Enquiries Team, which conducted the inquiry.
The incident was one of a series of tit-for-tat attacks by Protestant loyalist paramilitaries who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic Irish nationalists who wanted a united Ireland.
A 1998 peace agreement paved the way for a power-sharing government of loyalists and Irish nationalists and mostly ended the cycle of violence, though some small armed groups remain.
The guns used and some of the individuals implicated had clear ties to the IRA, Cox told relatives of the victims at a hall near the attack site in county Armagh. The South Armagh Republican Action Force, which took responsibility for the attack, was a front for the IRA, he said.
The report recounts how the workers were ordered out of a Ford transit minibus, which was bringing them home from work on a rainy evening in January 1976, a day after five Catholics were killed in two separate attacks in the county.
SHOT AT CLOSE RANGE
The one Catholic worker was instructed to run from the scene. The remaining 10 Protestants were told to "tighten up" and were shot at close range. Some survived the initial attack and the order was given to "finish them off."
The report found that the weapons used to kill the men were linked to 110 violent incidents, including 37 killings, and that individuals involved in the Kingsmills attack were later implicated in the 1998 Omagh bombing, carried out by the breakaway Real IRA group, which killed 29 people.
A spokesman for the Kingsmills relatives, William Frazer, said they were disappointed that the report did not name those responsible.
"The actions of the IRA were part of an ethnic cleansing campaign designed to remove all Protestants from the south Armagh area," he said.
The Historical Enquiries Team was set up as part of the peace process to re-examine deaths between 1968 and 1998. It is part of the cross-community Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has widespread support among Catholics and Protestants.
The release of the report coincides with the start of the annual marching season, a time of parades by Protestants which often trigger violent protests by Catholics.
(Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Jan Harvey)