Courtroom clashes spill on to Belfast streets

RIOTS returned to the streets of Belfast yesterday when loyalists and nationalists clashed in the city's Crown Court during the trial of a man accused of attempting to murder a prominent loyalist.

The security forces fired plastic bullets after a petrol bomb was thrown following the expulsion of 40 loyalists from the court building in an attempt to keep rival factions apart.

Hundreds of soldiers and policemen were called in. At one point masked men carrying cudgels and pickaxes joined a group of women to block the Crumlin Road outside the courtroom. Two vehicles were later hijacked on the Shankill Road, the Protestant centre of west Belfast. As they watched a hijacked van smouldering in the street behind the court, residents of a nearby Protestant estate accused the security forces of victimisation and brutality. They insisted Catholics had packed the trial of Stephen Larkin to prevent Protestants from getting in.

The rival groups swore and jeered at each other in court when loyalists asked Mr Justice Liam McCollum to dismiss and attempted murder charge against Mr Larkin, from Ardoyne, Belfast. He is accused of attempting to murder Johnny Adair. The case was adjourned until today after the violence broke out.

'The RUC are going into courts telling lies about Protestants,' one middle- aged man said. One civilian and three police officers were slightly injured. There were no arrests.

Last night Loyalist gangs set fire to four vehicles on roads around the Shankill following a Protestant demonstration. A police spokesman said: 'There have been four incidents of shots being fired agaist the security forces.'

In a separate incident, a 25-year-old man was shot in the leg last night when masked gunmen broke into a house in a mainly Protestant estate in Glengormley, north Belfast. Violent loyalist groups have been active in the mixed suburb.

Meanwhile, garda forensic experts believe the use of old unreliable commercial explosive in a bomb attack by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, on a Belfast to Dublin train on Monday probably averted a major disaster.

The shoe-box bomb in a black bag failed to explode when only the detonator went off as the train pulled into Dublin's Connolly station. Tests showed it contained powergel, a gelignite-type explosive used in quarries in Britain. Initially it was thought the device was little more than a firecracker. The explosive was the same as that used in the failed attack on the Widow Scallans pub in inner-city Dublin in May. The bomber may have put the bomb on the train in Belfast and then got off at Lisburn.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Irish justice minister, yesterday met Patrick Culligan, the Garda Commissioner, to hear an assessment of the increased loyalist threat.

An Irish cabinet meeting later heard proposals for tighter border surveillance, including extended aerial observation and more garda checks points in and around Dublin and other major cities in the Republic.

Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn said every possible precaution was being taken to protect the public. She dismissed suggestions by Unionists that loyalist violence was being provoked by the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, pushing 'too far too fast' to tie Sinn Fein into the political process after the IRA ceasefire.

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