Catholics creep back to homes wrecked in loyalist riot

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Eight Catholic families who were forced to flee their homes on Saturday night returned yesterday to count the cost of the damage after rampaging loyalists ransacked two flats and attacked other houses in north Belfast.

The loyalists, who were wearing masks, broke into flats in Limestone Road and destroyed windows, doors, furniture and fixtures in an orgy of destruction.

They then went on to attack other homes in the street as stone-throwers smashed windows and threatened to set fire to blocks of flats.

Mary Boyd, 75, a Catholic woman who was at mass during the destruction, came home to discover that her house had been targeted. Her son who lives nearby had heard the disturbance and gone to stop the attack only to be beaten with a stick by those damaging the house. Mrs Boyd said: "All the windows at the front of the house were smashed and I only just got those put in a fortnight ago when they were smashed.

"My son arrived at the house and there were about eight or nine men there smashing the window and trying to break the door down."

Mrs Boyd's son Jim, said: "They were shouting the usual things. You know, fenian bastard, the UVF, the UDA. But I kept telling them it was only a pensioner that lived there. Then they just ran off."

Trouble flared on Saturday night when rival groups of up to 200 youths clashed and began throwing stones and bottles at one another in an area where Catholic and Protestant housing estates meet

Police wearing full riot gear and backed up by the Army moved in to try to separate the rival factions only to come under attack themselves. The police managed to defuse the situation by driving loyalists back into the Tigers Bay area.

One woman who lives in the area blamed the attacks on a "thug mentality". She said: "If you ask me, this isn't about Protestants and Catholics. This is just about hooligans using religion to cause trouble."

Cecil Walker, Ulster Unionist MP for North Belfast, condemned those involved in the rioting. "These people are just a hooligan element from the Protestant side," he said.

"A carload of hooligans went into the area and just caused a lot of trouble. "I condemn this sort of behaviour completely".

North Belfast is one of Northern Ireland's most violent areas and has also been one of the most frequent scenes of sectarian conflict.

The demographic make-up of the area has changed considerably in the last two decades with an exodus of Protestants matched by a steady growth in the Catholic population. Regular clashes have led to the erection of more than a dozen "peace lines" to keep the two sides apart.

Mr Walker said he was worried that the continual trouble in the area would have dire economic consequences. "I'm very worried that if this continues on a regular basis, then the Government won't go ahead with their investment plans," he said.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly who is standing in the election in North Belfast, where the violence took place, accused loyalist paramilitaries of orchest- rating the violence.