Sectarian clashes erupt ahead of key vote by Unionists

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Rioting Flared in a divided section of Belfast last night as Northern Ireland headed toward a crucial legislative vote. More than 20 police officers were reported injured.

Catholics and Protestants fought along Limestone Road, a common flashpoint for sectarian violence, a Royal Ulster Constabulary spokesman said.

One civilian was taken to a nearby hospital with facial injuries believed to have been caused by a pipe bomb.

Earlier, a gang of republican youths attacked riot police as they dismantled military watchtowers at Glassdrumman army base, near Crossmaglen, in the republican stronghold of south Armagh.

Homemade grenades were thrown at police and army lines during fighting that continued all day. Police said that 23 officers had been wounded and several security force vehicles had been damaged.

Republicans had gathered at the look-out post to protest over the speed of demilitarisation ordered by the Government last week in response to arms decommissioning by the IRA. A Sinn Fein spokesman said: "If the British take their war machine off the top of mountains in south Armagh, people would not have to march up and stage these protests."

Police in the north of the city were continuing to question a 32-year-old woman about a loyalist blast bomb attack on Friday night which left a soldier critically ill. The 18-year-old Welch Fusilier underwent emergency surgery on his lower body yesterday after he was wounded when troops at a checkpoint close to the Holy Cross primary school came under attack from crowds hurling petrol bombs and other missiles.

The attack was blamed by the RUC and the army on the loyalist Ulster Defence Association. It prompted renewed clashes on Saturday between around 400 Protestants and Catholics in the Ardoyne area.

Meanwhile, George Mitchell, the former US senator who chaired the Good Friday Agreement peace talks, urged hardliners not to destabilise David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party leadership. Mr Trimble won the backing of his party's ruling council for a return to government with Sinn Fein after the IRA's decommissioning move. The 110-strong body passed a motion calling on all 28 Ulster Unionist assembly members to vote for Mr Trimble's reinstatement as head of the assembly.

Mr Mitchell said: "I hope that all of those who have been in the Unionist side who have been critical of David Trimble's leadership will now recognise he has been right all along."

Mr Mitchell added that he believed all paramilitary organisations would have to put their guns beyond use. "There is, of course, now no theoretical or other argument in the way of going forward," he told BBC's Breakfast with Frost. Mr Trimble, he said, "has been quite courageous in taking these steps, as have the other political leaders who are part of the pro-Agreement effort".

However, some party dissidents are demanding more detail on the decommissioning process and Mr Trimble faces a crucial vote later this week as he seeks to regain his job at the head of Northern Ireland's power-sharing regime.

If a majority of Unionists do not back Mr Trimble, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would either have to suspend the assembly again or call fresh elections.

Richard Haas, the special envoy to Northern Ireland of President George Bush, said yesterday that the US terror attacks had played a crucial role in bringing about decommissioning. He said the attacks bought about a "zero tolerance" of terrorism.

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