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Catholics Say British Army Uses Them as ‘Human Shields’

August 17, 1992 GMT

NEWRY, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Hundreds of Roman Catholics who live next to British army installations on Northern Ireland’s border believe they are being used as ″human shields″ to deter IRA attacks.

″I have become their front line of defense,″ said Kathleen Rutherford, who has watched with trepidation as an army post has grown around her home.

Such fears were brought into focus last week when the British government agreed to move a Catholic primary school away from an elaborate army post being built on the main Dublin-to-Belfast road outside this town.

The decision broke a longstanding policy of not addressing residents’ worries about their proximity to likely targets - and came only after the Irish Republican Army fired homemade mortars at the construction site.

Several of the army’s 17 border checkpoints are near villages, and virtually all are near houses. The posts have come under sporadic attack in the past two years by IRA bombers, who often hold local families at gunpoint.

The attacks have left nine soldiers dead and wrecked scores of homes. The army’s response has been to dig in deeper and expand the bases.

The IRA blasted an army post south of Newry in October 1990 and again in May. The second blast killed a soldier. The army’s top brass decided to build a bigger post up the road - coincidentally, they said, nearer the local school.

Residents, most of them Catholic nationalists who would like to see the army leave altogether, sent a delegation to the government.

″I asked the British ministers, who’s guarding whom?″ said Kevin Campbell, headmaster of Cloughoge Primary.

Residents threatened to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, and parents vowed not to let their children return Sept. 1 if the facility was not moved.

The government announced Friday that the school will be moved into Newry.

But Jeremy Hanley, one of three government officials who met with the angry residents, denied that the decision meant the youngsters were in any danger. He accused the IRA of exploiting parents’ fears.

On the road heading north from Londonderry, Rutherford braces for an IRA attack on the expanding army base next door.

She moved into the house five years ago when the army presence was little more than a tower and gate that monitored passing cars.

″Now look at it 3/8 It is a monstrosity on my doorstep,″ she said, gesturing out her back window at the anti-bomb trenches, barbed wire, searchlights and watchtowers that have sprouted up in the past few months.

The IRA attacked one checkpoint with a 500-pound ″human bomb,″ also in October 1990, killing five soldiers and a Catholic cook for the local police station who was forced to deliver it.

Since then, army engineers and an extra battalion of troops have overhauled the string of checkpoints into full-blown patrol bases, seizing farmland in the process.

The Irish News, Belfast’s main nationalist newspaper, argued in an editorial that nearby residents in effect have been ″deployed in order to defend an army base″ as a ″human shield.″

″This is the sort of tactic which was resorted to by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War,″ the newspaper argued.

A senior British official who visited the Rutherford home last month came away apparently unmoved. After hearing the woman’s complaints, security minister Michael Mates responded with a line borrowed from signs the army posts at checkpoints: ″Don’t blame us - blame the terrorists.″

″It is the scourge of terrorism that places people in jeopardy, not the army, who are trying only to keep the peace,″ said Mates.

A few weeks after his visit, the government said it would roll back the barrack walls from Rutherford’s back garden by about 50 feet.

But she said the concession makes little difference to her safety.

″The army was down the road before. Now they are right on top of me and my family. They are on three sides of my house 3/8″ she said before her voice broke and her eyes welled with tears.

″My life and the life of my family is at risk here. I need to be moved away. You can’t sell this house - no one would be fool enough to buy it. What will it take? Will my home have to be blown to bits before they will understand?″