Police and soldiers guard Belfast schools after arson attacks, shooting

Monday, January 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Hundreds of police and soldiers guarded schools across bitterly divided north Belfast on Monday after Protestant militants who claimed responsibility for the killing of a Catholic man over the weekend threatened to target Catholic teachers.

The tight security also followed arson attacks on two Catholic schools in Northern Ireland overnight. A mobile classroom was badly damaged by fire at a high school in Lisburn, southwest of Belfast, and a classroom at a primary school in south Belfast was damaged. Its walls and four cars parked nearby were also daubed with paint.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but attention focused on an outlawed Protestant group, the Red Hand Defenders, which claimed responsibility for the fatal shooting of postal worker Daniel McColgan, 20, at a sorting office in a Protestant area on Saturday.

On Friday, the group announced that it considers Catholic teachers, postal workers and prison officers to be ``legitimate targets'' in its ongoing campaign of sectarian violence.

Police believe the name Red Hand Defenders is used by members of Northern Ireland's largest illegal paramilitary group, the Protestant Ulster Defense Association, and other outlawed Protestant groups.

The British province's Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan said his officers were taking ``very clear steps'' to protect pupils and teachers and was talking to postal service bosses about increased security for their workers.

``We are not going to take any chances and we will be ensuring there is a substantial security operation,'' he said.

There was a heavy police presence Monday in many parts of the divided Ardoyne area of north Belfast, where more then 80 police officers were injured trying to keep Catholic and Protestant youths apart during two nights of rioting last week.

Police armored vehicles lined the route to the Holy Cross Girls Primary School, which was at the center of sectarian clashes last fall.

The Rev. Aidan Troy, chairman of the Roman Catholic school's board of governors, said all gates and doors are being kept locked and children are forbidden to open doors to visitors. ``We are taking sensible measures but if you turn a school into a fortress you kill the prospects of education,'' Troy said.

``But we don't want to endanger the children. We are taking the threat seriously.''

Northern Ireland's First Minister David Trimble, a Protestant political leader, and his deputy Mark Durkan, a Catholic, issued a joint statement saying the threats to attack Catholics must be withdrawn.

``Workers should be able to earn a living free from any form of attack or intimidation. Schools should be a haven for children, a place where they can learn and understand more about the importance of tolerance and respect for others,'' they said.

Police were questioning two men about McColgan's slaying. Postal workers halted mail service Sunday and Monday in his honor, and union leaders called for a half-day general work stoppage Friday to protest the killing and register concern about violence.