Four RUC officers were injured yesterday when a blast bomb was thrown by loyalists at Catholic pupils and their parents outside the trouble-torn Holy Cross primary school in north Belfast. The attack came after three consecutive days and nights of serious disturbances.
Distraught girls ran screaming and crying when the device exploded as police shepherded Ardoyne residents to the school, which is in a Protestant district. Philomena Flood, who was with her seven-year-old daughter, Erinn, said: "It was absolute chaos. As the blast bomb went off, we just ran around in circles. There were children everywhere; we were trying to grab our own and get to the school."
Panic-stricken children were comforted by parents and teachers at the school. Last night, several defiant parents said that despite the dangers they would continue to use the contested route to the school.
The paramilitary Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the attack, which aroused outrage and condemnation in many quarters, including loyalists and Unionists. Most believe the Ulster Defence Association, the largest Protestant paramilitary group, was behind the incident. Three men have been arrested.
John White, the Ulster Democratic Party chairman, whose party is linked to the UDA, called for dialogue, adding: "I don't know who did it. I wouldn't deny there weren't UDA in the vicinity, but I have absolutely no idea who hurled that blast bomb."
The incident was seen as a new low in a dispute that is resulting in the worst kind of publicity for Northern Ireland, and a general questioning of the state of the peace process. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who described the episode as "the road to barbarism", cut short a holiday to return to Belfast.
Detectives have appealed for witnesses to the death of a Protestant teenager in north Belfast on Tuesday. Thomas McDonald died after his bicycle was struck by a car that came from a Catholic estate. A woman has been arrested.