ROERMOND, NETHERLANDS, MAY 28 -- The Irish Republican Army said today its gunmen shot to death two Australian lawyers on vacation in the Netherlands after they "tragically mistook" them for British soldiers.

The two 24-year-old victims were ambushed Sunday night after returning to their car following a meal in an Italian restaurant.

"The IRA accepts responsibility for the deaths," said an IRA statement released in Dublin today. The statement added: "The active service unit involved tragically mistook the men for two British Army personnel. The IRA deeply regrets this tragedy."

The statement did not explain how the mistake was made. However, Dutch television said police believed the attackers were confused by British license plates on the Australians' car.

The victims, Stephen Melrose and Nick Spanos, died in a hail of machine-gun fire. They were Australian citizens but were based in London.

Two women with them were unhurt, said police spokesman Louis Steens. They were identified as Melrose's wife, Lyndal, and Spanos' girlfriend, Vicky Coss.

The attack took place in the central square of Roermond, a southern town frequented by British soldiers stationed in nearby West Germany.

In 1988, three British servicemen died in coordinated IRA attacks in Roermond and in Nieuwbergen, 30 miles to the north.

Steens said the Australian couples were on vacation and had arrived in Amsterdam from London on Sunday. They "just wanted to see a part of Holland" on their way to France, he said.

Witnesses said up to four people were involved in the shooting, Steens said.

Steens said the 40-member police team assigned to the case was being assisted by Royal Air Force police and West German police.

The almost exclusively Catholic Irish Republican Army is fighting to push the British out of Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, join it with the Republic of Ireland and set up an all-Ireland socialist state.