Britain tries to calm N Ireland tensions

Northern Ireland's Protestants face a "moment of choice" between law and gangsterism, Britain warned Monday, after rioters hurling pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails and paving slabs injured at least 50 police and 10 civilians.

The clashes erupted Saturday over a ban on a parade through Roman Catholic areas and exposed deep frustration among many Protestants with the 1998 peace process that was intended to end three decades of strife in the province.

"This is a moment of choice for everybody, for politicians and for people right the way down through every part of the community," said Peter Hain, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland affairs, as he studied steps to take after a second night of rioting.

"Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of law and order, applied fairly and equally to every citizen?" he asked.

"Or are you against law and order, siding with those firing bullets at the police, throwing petrol bombs and blast bombs at police and attacking them?"

At least 50 officers were wounded over the weekend when they came under a hail of live rounds, paint bombs, pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails and paving stones, police said. Ten civilians were also injured.

Eighteen people were arrested Sunday alone as more than 700 Protestants attacked police in the Protestant east of the city, police said.

Numerous cars were stolen and set ablaze Sunday night in Alberbridge Road and in other clashes between Protestant youths and police in the east, center and north of Northern Ireland's capital city.

At Bangor, to the east of Belfast, a bus was hijacked, then set on fire, after its passengers were robbed, while a police station at New Barnsley, to the west, came under attack by rioters who tried to ram the door with cars.

The violence was "not loyalism but gangsterism," Hain said.

He said he attended an intelligence briefing at police headquarters which presented "absolutely clear-cut" evidence that the outlawed Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force were behind the violence.

He said he would announce soon if the government recognized whether the two groups were observing the ceasefire they declared in 1994, just weeks after the Catholic Irish Republican Army ceasefire.

"I'm now going through, and indeed have been over the past week, a process in which I will be making an announcement in the next few days," Hain said.

Northern Ireland's police chief, Hugh Orde, on Sunday blamed the Orange Order for sparking the first night of riots, which injured 32 police in the worst violence to hit the province in many years. Another 18 police were hurt on Sunday.

The trouble grew out of Saturday's annual Whiterock parade, part of a series of processions held in Northern Ireland every year during the so-called "marching season" by members of the Protestant Orange Order.

Marchers were angered by a decision by Northern Ireland's Parades Commission to reroute the Whiterock march to keep it out of areas dominated by Roman Catholics, who generally favor a united Ireland.

The Orange Order's Belfast grand lodge rejected what it called Orde's "intemperate, inflammatory and inaccurate remarks," saying its members and supporters had been victims of "brutal and heavy-handed police action."

The Orange Order — which takes its name from Protestant King William of Orange, who defeated James II's Catholics in Ireland in 1690 — represents hardline opinion in the Northern Irish Protestant, or loyalist, community, which wants to keep British rule, Japan Today reported.

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