Suspected IRA gunmen open fire on police

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The Independent Online

Suspected Irish Republican Army gunmen opened fire on police and Protestant homes and anti–Catholic militants responded with homemade grenades Monday as sectarian passions flared in north Belfast.

The police commander responsible for suppressing Catholic–Protestant clashes in the most polarized pockets of north Belfast said violence there this summer had been the worst he'd seen in 20 years.

Police said eight rounds from an assault rifle were fired from Hallidays Road, a Catholic neighborhood beside Duncairn Gardens, where militant Protestants live. Nobody was reported hit.

Later police reported another burst of about 25 bullets fired from the Catholic side toward the Protestant houses, with no reported injuries. They were also investigating reports that three pipebombs or grenades had detonated in the back yards of Catholic homes, yet again wounding nobody.

The latest violence followed rioting Sunday night by rival mobs in the no man's land between the two districts. During those clashes suspected gunmen from the Ulster Defense Association or UDA, an outlawed Protestant group, opened fire from Duncairn Gardens on Catholic crowds. A Catholic woman said she was shot in the leg, though she wasn't hospitalized.

Police recovered the remains of five exploded pipebombs as well as three more homemade explosive devices that failed to detonate Monday. An outlawed Protestant group, the Red Hand Defenders, claimed responsibility for those attacks. The Red Hand Defenders is a cover name for members of the UDA who don't want to stick to their group's 1994 cease–fire.

Catholics in Hallidays Road insisted that the UDA had started the latest spasm of violence. They said a 200–strong Protestant mob had smashed windows in their homes Sunday, and they accused police of doing little or nothing to stop them.

But police said their members were being targeted by both sides. And Protestant homes were also attacked Sunday night in the nearby Crumlin Road district. Around 100 Protestants, mostly women, blocked the road Monday in protest at what they said were recurring attacks on their homes by stone–throwing Catholic youths, but police blocked them from marching toward Catholic homes in Ardoyne, north Belfast's premier power base for the IRA.

Both sides of the community blame each other for starting and stoking the sporadic rioting, which began in June. Tensions have risen because of ongoing Protestant efforts to block Catholics from the front door of a Catholic elementary school, as well as July's traditional Protestant parades.

This week's violence coincides with a rising political crisis over the refusal of the IRA, the UDA and other outlawed groups to disarm in line with the province's 1998 peace accord. The issue threatens to topple Northern Ireland's Catholic–Protestant government within weeks.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan, who coordinates police deployments in north Belfast, said the last four months of violence in north Belfast "is far worse than anything we have seen for many, many years."

"Some of the rioting we have seen in north Belfast this summer is the worst we have seen in Belfast since the hunger strikes," he said, referring to the IRA–led 1981 prison protest that left 10 prisoners dead and more than 100 people dead from riots.

In north Belfast this summer, more than 300 officers and several dozen residents have been injured in riots. Two Protestant teen–agers have been slain: One fatally run over by an enraged Catholic motorist, another killed when anti–Catholic extremists fired at a crowd that they mistakenly presumed were all Catholics.