Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Belfast Protestants stage show of force for divisive marches

AP , Belfast, Northern Ireland

An Irish tricolor flag burns at a bonfire where minutes earlier gunmen fired automatic weapons during a march in Belfast late Sunday on the eve of the annual Orange Order parades, vowing to ?

Protestants began Northern Ireland's most divisive annual commemoration yesterday with towering bonfires, sporadic acts of violence and menacing appearances by masked gunmen.

The British territory was braced for daylong parades by tens of thousands of Northern Ireland members of the Orange Order, the major British Protestant group.

The ``Twelfth,'' an official holiday in Northern Ireland marked each July 12, officially commemorates the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. On that day the forces of the newly crowned Protestant king of England, William of Orange, defeated an army loyal to James II, Will-iam's deposed Catholic rival.

But the parades amount to a show of communal strength by Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, featuring conservatively dressed men in suits and bowler hats as well as groups of teenagers and young men playing fife and drum in ``kick the pope'' bands.

The Twelfth this year got off to its traditional start with hundreds of towering bonfires constructed of pallets, old furniture, scrap wood and tires lit at midnight.

In Belfast, heavy-drinking crowds cheered as bonfires deco-rated with hate symbols -- chiefly Irish flags and election posters for Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked political party -- burned to the ground.

Beside at least two Belfast bonfires, masked gunmen from outlawed anti-Catholic paramilitary groups fired handguns and submachine guns into the air.

Representatives from two rival gangs, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, read out statements vowing to defend Protestant areas from any IRA attacks -- a sign that although all three groups are supposed to be observing ceasefires, they remain armed and organized in defiance of the 1998 peace accord.

"We are better prepared now than at any time in the past," declared one masked UDA man, to the cheers of the crowd. "It's still no surrender to the enemies of Ulster, no matter where they may be."

Police reported trouble in a half-dozen areas across the territory, with no serious injuries reported.

One man was arrested for throwing gasoline bombs at police armored vehicles in north Belfast. In Kilrea, 50km to the northwest, police fired warning shots in the air to drive back two rival gangs fighting in the town's main square. In Limavady, 100km northwest, police repeatedly suffered barrages of bottles, rocks and bricks as they tried to clear away the remains of a bonfire lit in the middle of a street.

The British governor, Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy, appealed to Orange Order leaders to ensure that their members and supporting bands don't violate a range of restrictions on where they are allowed to march.

All sides have warned of possible street clashes after the main parade through Belfast, when individual lodges of Orangemen walk back to their local lodges -- in several cases past Catholic districts. Orangemen have threatened to mount evening protests over the barring of bands and supporters from one parade past Ardoyne, a Catholic enclave in north Belfast.

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