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Two wounded boys on opposite sides of Belfast divide

July 7, 1997 GMT

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ They’re both 14 years old, ardent soccer players and lying in hospital beds. The two youths from opposite sides of Belfast’s divide are the most serious victims of night-time rampages that have swept through Catholic areas of Northern Ireland.

Gary Lawlor, a Catholic, is in a coma after being struck on the head early Monday by a plastic bullet during rioting between youths and police in Lenadoon, a grim housing project on the edge of Catholic west Belfast.

Craig McCann, a Protestant, may need to have his left arm amputated after a bullet struck his shoulder and punctured a lung about the same time Monday. He was standing atop a fence that separates pro-British Protestant and Irish Catholic sections of west Belfast.

Protestant youths had been trading rocks with Catholic youths on the other side, and both groups were watching adult Catholics assault a police station with firebombs farther up the road.

Craig’s friends were also defending a nearby stack of wood from Catholic firebombs. Their traditional bonfire is supposed to be lit on Friday, the eve of the biggest annual celebrations by Protestant Orangemen.

Both the Irish Republican Army and a splinter gang, the Irish National Liberation Army, made general claims of responsibility for shooting wildly at police and army positions late Sunday and early Monday. But neither owned up to shooting Craig.

Gary had been part of a mob of youths pelting police with stones and other objects, a scene repeated across Catholic sections of Belfast.

His family demanded an investigation into why he was hit by a plastic bullet, a hard cylinder 3 1/2 inches long and an inch thick that leaves the barrel at more than 130 mph.

British-style plastic bullets are supposed to be fired below the waist to knock down rioters, but only if they’re launching an assault.

Seventeen people, many of them teen-agers, have been killed by plastic bullets since their introduction in 1973, most recently a 15-year-old boy during north Belfast riots in 1989.

``We want to know why our son was hit in the back of the head when these plastic bullets are supposed to be fired below the waist,″ his parents said in a statement read by Gary’s cousin, Janet Donnelly.

She spoke in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, where other riot victims filled the emergency ward.

``We are calling on the British government to ban the use of plastic bullets now before any other Irish children, or citizens, are killed or seriously injured on our streets,″ she said.