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Wurtzitic GaN epilayers have been grown on sapphire (0001) substrates by radio-frequency atomic nitrogen plasma-assisted molecular beam epitaxy. Atomic force microscopy, reflectivity, and photoluminescence measurements have been performed in order to investigate the influence of in situ and ex situ annealing on the surface morphology and optical properties. We demonstrate a significant improvement in both the structural and optical quality of our GaN epilayers using in situ annealed low-temperature-deposited GaN buffer layers. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.