Britain won a major victory in its fight against the Irish Republican Army when a coroner's jury decided on Friday that British commandos acted within the law when they shot to death three unarmed IRA guerrillas.

The jury in the British colony of Gibraltar returned verdicts of lawful killing by a 9-2 majority after deliberating for more than six hours on the manner in which the three -Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann and Sean Savage - met their deaths."The government naturally welcomes the jury's finding, which speaks for itself," a British government spokesman said.

Patrick McGrory, a lawyer for the guerrillas' relatives, had charged during the inquest that the three had been victims of a British "shoot-to-kill" policy against the IRA.

Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, said: "The inquest verdict reflects the pro-British ethos of Gibraltar... and no doubt, some frantic behind-the-scenes activity by the British intelligence services."

"This is a vindication of British policy," said Ian Gow, a Conservative member of Parliament.

Four plain-clothes commandos of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) pumped 27 bullets into the three guerrillas in a busy Gibraltar street on March 6.

The deaths sparked off an outcry among politicians in the Irish Republic and rioting in the streets of Northern Ireland, where the IRA is fighting to end British rule.