New rioting at Drumcree as troops dig in

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland experienced its fourth successive night of widespread loyalist violence last night as the security forces strengthened their defences at the Drumcree flashpoint near Portadown.

Northern Ireland experienced its fourth successive night of widespread loyalist violence last night as the security forces strengthened their defences at the Drumcree flashpoint near Portadown.

Dozens of roads across Belfast were blocked by protests and barricades set up by loyalists extending their campaign of disruption, with more clashes reported between rioters and police.

At Drumcree itself the most senior British soldier, General Sir Mike Jackson, inspected new defences which were installed during the day. The general, who is commander-in-chief of Land Forces, spent 20 minutes speaking with police and army officers.

The new defences are a massive steel structure designed to protect troops and police who in recent night have been attacked by missiles, acid and fireworks. The RUC has also used a large water cannon, on loan from Belgian police, which has had some success in driving rioters back from the security force lines.

The security forces seem unable to provide full protection for their men, several of whom have been injured each night, or to push the rioters back out of stone-throwing range. The expectation is therefore that disturbances are likely to continue both at Drumcree and at traditional flashpoints in north and west Belfast.

The RUC's Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, warned last night that he believed extreme elements were intent on staging gun attacks on his officers. He said he had reports that "very evil people" were planning to attack the RUC with firearms and blast bombs. Saying his officers were doing everything possible to minimise disruption, he said people in the Province should stand up to troublemakers and help the police.

A gun attack on police on the fringes of the loyalist Shankill Road district on Tuesday night is being attributed to the Ulster Defence Association, though the organisation has denied involvement.

The violence was condemned by the UDA's political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, which appears to have little influence over its parent group. The party leader, Gary McMichael, warned that disturbances were likely to increase, with little chance of a resolution until after Sunday's march.

He added: "I don't think there is going to be a chance of resolving this, certainly not before next Sunday. I would imagine we are just going to have to batten down the hatches and see where things go over the next week or so."

A spate of protests during the evening rush-hour yesterday closed many major roads in Belfast, leading to near-gridlock for a time. After the traffic eventually cleared the centre of the city was almost deserted, with restaurants and bars closing their doors.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, denounced the violence, saying: "This is not legitimate protest. This is not what the ordinary decent Orangemen want. This is pure thuggery. Petrol-bombs, fireworks, ball-bearings and acid squirted at the police - those are not the weapons of democrats or legitimate protest. They are the weapons of the bully and the bully will not have his way."

Events on the streets overshadowed political developments yesterday. The Rev Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, announced that the DUP's two ministers on the 10-man Northern Ireland Executive would resign at the end of the month. As previously announced, their places will be taken by two more Paisleyites.

The move was jointly denounced by the First Minister, David Trimble, and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, who said they were astonished at the antics of the DUP. "How anyone can believe that rotating ministers regularly will not harm the delivery of public services is a mystery," Mr Trimble said. "Put simply, we will not allow the delivery of critical public services to be threatened through political opportunism."