LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland — Relatives of 13 Catholic demonstrators shot to death by British troops on Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday cried tears of joy Tuesday as an epic inquiry ruled that their loved ones were innocent and the soldiers to blame for the slaughter on Jan. 30, 1972.
The investigation took 12 years and nearly $290 million, but the victims' families and the British, Irish and U.S. governments said the findings would help heal one of the gaping wounds left from Northern Ireland's four-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead.
Thousands of residents of Londonderry gathered outside the City Hall to watch the verdict come in, followed by an apology from Prime Minister David Cameron in London.
The inquiry found that soldiers opened fire without justification at unarmed, fleeing civilians and lied about it for decades, refuting a 1972 British investigation that branded the demonstrators as Irish Republican Army bombers and gunmen.
The demonstrators were protesting the internment without trial of IRA suspects. The report said some soldiers fired knowing their victims were unarmed.
"What happened should never, ever have happened," Cameron said before the House of Commons. "The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry."
"I couldn't believe it, I was so overjoyed," said Kay Duddy, clutching the handkerchief used to swab blood from her 17-year-old brother's body that day. Jackie Duddy, the first of the 13 killed, was shot in the back.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I ever envisage a British prime minister would stand up in Parliament and tell the truth of what happened on Bloody Sunday," Duddy said.
Relatives of the 13 dead and 15 wounded went to a podium, and huge black-and-white pictures of their relative were displayed on a massive television screen. They voiced relief that the demonstrators were found innocent and the Parachute Regiment solely to blame.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, authorized by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 in the run-up to the negotiation of the Good Friday peace accord that year, was led by English judge Lord Saville.
The government in London still has to tackle the difficult question of whether any of the soldiers involved, or their commanders, should face criminal prosecution, or be granted indemnity, as the opposition Labour Party's acting leader, Harriet Harman, urged in her response to Cameron's remarks.
Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.