Catholic man shot dead in Antrim

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A gunman on a motorcycle killed a Catholic man early Wednesday in the bitterly divided town of Antrim. Though no group claimed responsibility, politicians blamed extremists based in the town's hard­line Protestant neighborhoods, who have previously targeted Catholics at random at times of rising tension in Northern Ireland.

The 19­year­old victim was shot at least twice as he stood waiting for a ride to work at F.G. Wilson, one of Northern Ireland's most respected engineering companies near Belfast. Police said the gunman was the passenger on a motorcycle.

It was the ninth killing in Northern Ireland this year. Almost all the previous killings involved either the Irish Republican Army killing alleged criminals within the IRA's Catholic power bases, or feuding Protestant militants killing each other.

Wednesday's slaying coincides with rising sectarian passions in Northern Ireland, where the Protestant Orange Order is planning hundreds of marches in the next week, some of them near or through Catholic areas. The most controversial parade in Portadown has been banned this Sunday from the Garvaghy Road, the town's major Catholic district.

Antrim, 15 miles (25 kms) west of Belfast, was once predominantly Protestant, but in the past decade has absorbed thousands of Catholics from nearby Belfast. The town has increasingly divided along political­religious lines.

A Catholic was killed near the town in 1998 in the runup to the Orange marching season. This year, Catholic businesses and homes in the area have frequently been targeted with crude pipebombs.

"We have seen a number of attacks on Catholic churches, threats and intimidation and it appears we have an absolutely innocent victim," said David Ford, an Antrim town councilman from the small Alliance Party, which draws support from both Catholics and Protestants.