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Britain took what it hoped would be two steps toward peace in Northern Ireland on Friday, saying it may pull 5,500 troops out of the province and allow guerrillas who escaped prison and fled abroad to return.

The planned troop withdrawal by the British army, conditional on the security situation continuing to improve, would leave 8,000 soldiers stationed there.

The British military presence has been a constant source of anger for the province's minority Catholic population, and was a target of 30 years of attacks by the Irish Republican Army.

But after a landmark 1998 peace deal, a general cease-fire now prevails and the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, is sharing power with parties representing the Protestant majority.

Britain also decided Friday to allow members of the province's guerrilla groups who escaped from prison and fled abroad to return and seek release from jail under the terms of the peace process.

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