Belfast comes to a halt as barricades go up

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The Independent Online

The silence settled over Belfast just before 4pm. The streets of the city - increasingly vibrant since the outbreak of peace - suddenly emptied as if someone had thrown a switch.

The silence settled over Belfast just before 4pm. The streets of the city - increasingly vibrant since the outbreak of peace - suddenly emptied as if someone had thrown a switch.

The sounds began to return about an hour later - the sirens of police vans, fire engines and ambulances on their way to the dozens of roadblocks set up by loyalists, which had become points of confrontation.

The city experienced its evening rush hour at about midday as offices and shops closed early and people hurried to catch buses and trains home. Some headed for the airport to escape the trouble they foresaw ahead.

By early evening it was impossible to travel across Belfast without running into barricades. Some were controlled by just a few middle-aged men and women - and passage could be negotiated - but others had already been set alight and stones and bottles were being thrown at soldiers and the police.

Shaftesbury Square, at the head of the Golden Mile in Belfast, full of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, was one of the first places to see violence. Loyalists from Sandy Row blocked off roads and then began lobbing half-bricks and bottles at the security line.

Those mounting the assaults were young, some no more than nine or ten. But behind them stood older men the police believed would play a more prominent role later in the evening. Police photographers began to take pictures of the suspects, who appeared to be keen to hide themselves in shopfronts.

One man making no attempt to hide was Johnny Adair, recently released under the Good Friday Agreement from his prison sentence for directing terrorism. He appeared at Carlisle Circus, off the Shankill Road, where minor skirmishes had been taking place between loyalist youths and the police.

Mr Adair, who developed a bodybuilder's physique during his time in prison, flexed his muscles and declared that he wanted a peaceful resolutionto the crisis over Drumcree, which has sparked a week of protests.

"Look, you can see I'm not engaged in any acts of violence," he said. "The fact remains that the Orange Order has been badly treated at Drumcree and the people here are making clear their anger at that."

Billy Scott, 12, who had just thrown a lump of wood at the police line, said he was not that bothered about Drumcree but enjoyed the nightly street fighting which ensued. Short and slim, wearing a Rangers football shirt, he said: "I've been out every night with my mates and we have a good time. We only attack the police because they are protecting the Fenians living on the other side. They taunt us and then get away with it because the police protect them. Anyway, it's good fun."

At Shaftesbury Square, a young man who would give his name only as Robert said: "If the police start using plastic bullets without justification we shall hit back. I don't think there will be any shooting, but there will be a few petrol bombs."

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