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HATE-filled streets underscore trouble for Northern Ireland peace accord

Updated:

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Rival Catholic and Protestant mobs clashed with police in several polarized Belfast districts early Friday morning, venting their rage in violence that threatened Northern Ireland's fragile peace accord of 1998.

For the second straight night, police and British soldiers were pitted against rioters on the edge of Ardoyne, a hard-line Catholic enclave surrounded by militant Protestant neighborhoods. Some 24 officers were injured overnight Thursday, police said.


Ten shots were fired at police lines in two separate incidents, police said. Six bombs were set off, and about 46 gasoline bombs and a number of large fireworks were thrown, police added.

Three people were arrested on public order offenses and 24 gasoline bombs seized before the area was declared quiet shortly after 4 a.m., a police spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.

Officers with helmets, shields and flame-retardant suits weathered a new barrage of bottles and gasoline bombs as they held the middle ground between rival groups. One officer was struck in the face with a rock and then dragged unconscious by colleagues to a nearby armored car.

Hard-liners in other troubled districts of Belfast also took to the streets, forcing police to turn for help to British troops, whose presence in Northern Ireland has been cut back.

Along west Belfast's Springfield Road, police and troops intervened in the middle of a rock-throwing clash between Catholic and Protestant youths, and said three officers suffered injuries.

Street fights and rock-throwing battles were reported in at least two other areas of the city. Police advised motorists to avoid driving after dark. And as army surveillance helicopters kept watch on the unfolding troubles, columns of police and army armored cars lined several roads and intersections near hostile, often drunken crowds.

Overnight Wednesday, police said rioters in the Ardoyne area threw more than 100 gasoline bombs and several homemade grenades at their lines, injuring 39 officers, five seriously.

Protestant militants threw at least two crude pipe bombs into the back yards of Catholic-occupied homes in Ardoyne. One blast Thursday afternoon knocked a 5-year-old boy into a fence but didn't injure him, locals said.

Much like their politicians, who are struggling to keep a joint Catholic-Protestant government running as the 1998 pact intended, the two sides in the Ardoyne dispute are shouting accusations of blame and refusing to listen to each others' fears.

The Catholics say Protestants began throwing rocks Tuesday at schoolgirls leaving Holy Cross Primary School, which sits beside the few remaining Protestant-occupied streets in Ardoyne.

``This trouble will stop when Protestant community leaders can say with confidence that these children can go to their school in safety,'' said Gerry Kelly, a former Irish Republican Army bomber who today is a north Belfast representative of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.

But the Protestants _ who on Thursday blocked the main road outside the school and forced parents to escort their children through a back entrance _ insist the violence began Tuesday when IRA supporters from Ardoyne attacked Protestants erecting flags on Protestant streets beside the school.

Those flags honor the Ulster Volunteer Force, an outlawed paramilitary group that, like the IRA, is supposed to be observing a cease-fire in support of the 1998 pact.

Both sides concede that the wider issue _ common to most Northern Ireland disputes _ is the question of control. North Belfast was once predominantly Protestant, but is turning increasingly Catholic.

``It's all about territory and who should be allowed to move this way or that way. The only solution is to live together, but try telling that to people in this environment,'' said the Rev. Norman Hamilton.

He oversees a Presbyterian church in Ballysillan, a nearby Protestant neighborhood rife with murals and flags marking the area as home turf for another outlawed Protestant gang, the Ulster Defense Association.

Hamilton spent Thursday visiting his parishioners, among them people considering moving away from the area because they're increasingly scared of having their homes attacked by Catholic youths from Ardoyne.

``One lady who was very frightened said to me, `If the peace process breaks down, all this hatred in the streets will become normal again,''' he said. ``That's a scary prospect.''
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