In a brief statement, the outlawed IRA said it received advance notice of Wednesday's call from Adams, an alleged IRA commander, and "will give his appeal due consideration and will respond in due course".

The IRA, which killed about 1800 people as part of a failed campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a British territory, has been observing a ceasefire since 1997. But the underground organisation remains active on several fronts, particularly in running illegal rackets and promoting Catholic opposition to the province's police.

The IRA's activities and refusal to disarm repeatedly undermined the central objective of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord: a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that included Sinn Fein.

A four-party coalition collapsed in 2002, and efforts to revive the arrangement failed in December when the IRA refused to permit photos of its disarmament or to renounce crime.

Under pressure

Aljazeera's correspondent in London, Nasir al-Husaini, said the main reason behind Adam's call appears to be the heavy pressure being felt by the Sinn Fein from Britain, Ireland and the United States on account of the accusations levelled against the IRA last year.

The Irish republican movement
is torn by internal differences

Besides, the IRA is embroiled in the robbery of 26 million pounds from a Belfast bank and the killing of a Catholic man by alleged organisation members.

Adams, in his statement, said the issue of disarming the IRA had practically frozen the Sinn Fein's political activities.

Al-Husaini said the Sinn Fein leader could not have issued the disarmament appeal without the green light from the IRA.

He added that political analysts believe Adams' appeal will be either accepted or rejected depending on the outcome of the debate within the republican movement, which is torn between the old guard who insist on the military option and the pragmatists who want to give political dialogue a chance.

UK reaction

The British government, reacting on Thursday to the IRA statement, said the group's refusal to fade away was preventing any revival of power-sharing.

"Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?"

Gerry Adams,
Sinn Fein party chief

"Everyone recognises that the major obstacle in moving forward the peace process in Northern Ireland has been the reluctance of the Irish Republican Army to stand down from military preparations, although they have maintained a cease-fire against British military forces and the police," Health Secretary John Reid, a former British governor in Northern Ireland who officially pulled the plug on power-sharing in 2002, said.

In Wednesday's statement, Adams said he had defended the IRA's right to wage "armed struggle" from 1970 to 1997 and repeatedly praised IRA members.

But Adams said those days were gone and IRA members should immediately discuss what the group's future purpose should be.

Adams said traditional IRA goals - chiefly the quest to unite the predominantly Protestant north of Ireland with the predominantly Catholic south, which won independence from Britain in 1922 - could be pursued peacefully through a growing Sinn Fein.