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Anarchy reigns in Catholic parts of Northern Ireland

July 7, 1997 GMT

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Anti-British rioters threw Roman Catholic areas of Northern Ireland into anarchy today, hijacking cars and buses, wrecking shops and trying to kill police and soldiers with guns, grenades and gasoline bombs.

The violence left scores wounded, many from plastic bullets fired by police.

The chaos continued this afternoon in west Belfast, when two buses were hijacked at gunpoint and burned as roadblocks. Police said more than 230 vehicles have been hijacked and burned in Northern Ireland since Sunday morning.

One 14-year-old Protestant boy was shot through the shoulder when a military base straddling pro-British Protestant and Irish Catholic parts of west Belfast came under gun and grenade attack from the Catholic side.

Belfast’s City and Royal Victoria hospitals treated at least 24 wounded people, while Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry took in five casualties from rioting in that city.

The Irish Republican Army, which resumed its campaign against British rule 17 months ago, took responsibility for shooting a policewoman in the face Sunday in the Catholic town of Coalisland. The outlawed group was believed responsible for at least nine gun attacks on soldiers in Belfast late Sunday and today.

Soldiers dived for cover behind brick walls early today in response to sustained bursts of automatic fire ricocheting off the road in north Belfast.

The rioting was triggered when British authorities failed to broker a compromise between the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s main pro-British Protestant fraternal group, and Catholics trying to prevent Orangemen from marching through the Catholic section of Portadown, 30 miles southwest of Belfast.

More than 1,000 police officers and several hundred soldiers in armored cars swept into the Catholic area before dawn Sunday, forcing protesters from the road and providing safe passage for the parade several hours later.

Orange Order marches were to continue throughout the week, including tonight in the mostly Catholic village of Bellaghy. The marches _ which Protestants feel express their history and which Catholics consider a humiliating reminder of their minority status _ climax Saturday in Orange celebrations across Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said today she understood the anger in the Catholic community, but added ``nothing justifies the orchestrated violence we have seen in the last 24 hours.″

``If there had been some common sense or accommodation between the two sides,″ it could have been avoided, she said.

She said she would speak with Protestant marchers about upcoming parades.

``I will expect to see some willingness and understanding of the events of this weekend reflected in their words and actions in the days ahead,″ Mowlam said. ``It is a time for generosity on their side.″

Protestant politicians accused the IRA of orchestrating the violence, and warned British authorities not to block any other Orange marches.

In Londonderry, 300 masked rioters hijacked and burned several cars and staged a running battle with riot police all night. One vehicle was driven through the security gates of a bank and set afire. The headquarters of the city’s pro-British Protestant fraternal order, the Apprentice Boys, was struck by gasoline bombs.

South of Londonderry, in the mostly Catholic border town of Strabane, rioters hijacked and burned 13 vehicles, then threw more than 100 gasoline bombs at police when they came.

In Newry, 30 miles south of Belfast, masked and armed men set a Social Security office on fire and blocked several roads with burning cars and trucks. About 40 youths looted a shopping center.

And in Armagh, 40 miles southwest of Belfast, police barred traffic from downtown because of the risk of hijackings.

Last year, the British initially blocked the Orange march at Portadown before it reached the Catholic area of Garvaghy Road. But a 10,000-strong mob of Protestants at the police barricades demanded to be allowed through, and Protestants rioted elsewhere.

Police reversed their decision after four nights, triggering even worse Catholic rioting.