Homemade grenade blasts police in Northern Ireland

Thursday, September 6, 2001

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Schoolgirls screamed and their parents ducked after Protestant extremists hurled a homemade grenade at them Wednesday, the third day of a hate-fueled confrontation outside a Catholic elementary school in Northern Ireland.

Two police officers were knocked to the ground by the blast; one suffered shrapnel wounds in his legs, authorities said. Three Protestant militants were arrested in connection with the blast.

"It was awful that a policeman was hit, but it could have been one of those little girls. That has been my fear all along," said the Rev. Aidan Troy, governor of the besieged school in the north Belfast neighborhood of Ardoyne.

Protestant neighborhood

The girls were walking with police and their parents through a Protestant neighborhood for a third day of classes at Holy Cross Primary School.

"When the bomb went off I was scared to turn round to look behind me. I thought the children and parents that were just behind me were dead," said Isabel McGrann, who had escorted her 7-year-old daughter, Emma.

More than 40 police officers have been wounded since rioting began Monday in Ardoyne, a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. The besieged school lies in Ardoyne's small Protestant area, where residents insist no Catholics will be welcome until attacks on their own homes end.

Troy said he has urged Catholic parents in vain to use a rear entrance not threatened by Protestants. The school has 150 students age 4 to 11; on Wednesday about 100 came to class.

Tensions in Ardoyne have spread to several other polarized parts of north Belfast, the most bitterly divided side of Northern Ireland's capital. A Protestant teen-ager was run over and killed Tuesday in what police suspected was a deliberate attack by a Catholic driver, the only death so far to be linked with the street anarchy.

Britain faced mounting pressure to take punitive action against the Ulster Defense Association, the outlawed Protestant group blamed for most of the recent attacks against Catholics.

The UDA -- whose flags fly from lampposts throughout the Protestant section of Ardoyne -- is supposed to be observing a cease-fire in support of the province's 1998 peace pact, and more than 200 members were paroled from prison as part of the deal.

The Red Hand Defenders, regarded by police as a cover name used by UDA members, claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack.

Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, John Reid, announced he would return Thursday to Belfast, cutting short a vacation in France. Reid previously ordered two senior Ulster Defense Association figures imprisoned indefinitely in response to UDA violence.

Renewed confrontations

The confrontations began outside the school in June and resumed Monday when the summer break ended. This time, however, police have not allowed Protestants to block the school's main entrance.

Even hard-line Protestants denounced the primary school violence.

"I was disgusted to be a loyalist this morning," said Billy Hutchinson, a politician linked to another of Northern Ireland's outlawed Protestant groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force. In Northern Ireland, the term "loyalist" refers to the most hard-line Protestants.

"This sectarian strife, which places children in the front line, is creating an extraordinarily dangerous situation for all of us," said a joint statement from the leaders of Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant government, the cornerstone of the 1998 pact.

It is threatening to collapse soon over several unresolved key issues, especially the refusal of outlawed groups to disarm.

The politician most closely linked to the Ulster Defense Association, paroled killer John White, said Wednesday's blast "should never have happened -- things are getting totally out of hand."

But White, who spent 18 years in prison for the knife slaying of a Catholic politician and his girlfriend, said Protestants had intended to protest peacefully but had been provoked by heavy-handed police tactics.

Protesters have said they are retaliating for attacks on their homes by Catholics.

Ardoyne's Protestants are confined to four small streets flanking the school, which was built 32 years ago shortly before Northern Ireland's civil unrest ignited.

Some protesters say they want the school transferred to Protestant hands and for Britain to build a new school for Catholics in the Catholic side of the neighborhood.

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