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Friday, September 28, 2001

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Row over school route worsens

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, SEPT. 27. Violence has broken out again in Northern Ireland with loyalists and republicans exchanging fire and attacking the police in a series of incidents in the Ardyone area of North Belfast, the chronic flashpoint for sectarian clashes in the province.

Tension had been brewing since the weekend, and on Wednesday it erupted into a riot during which a bus and a car were set on fire and petrol bombs hurled at the police. Rioters fired from automatic machine guns and the police retaliated with plastic bullets. More than 30 police officers were reported to have been injured in the rioting which lasted several hours. The trouble started after loyalists blocked a road as part of their continuing protest aimed at denying Catholic children access to their school through a road that passes through a Protestant neighbourhood. The protesters want them to use a side road saying that IRA activists are using the schoolchildren as a cover to intrude into a loyalist area and stir up trouble.

The two communities have been engaged in a bitter fight over the issue with republicans pointing out that the road, leading to the school, is public property and they cannot be prevented from using it. With the loyalist paramilitary outfit, the Red Hand Defenders, claiming responsibility for some of the attacks, what began as a local dispute has snowballed into a political controversy and the paramilitary groups on both sides have joined in - with guns and missiles. Observers have blamed the rise of violence in recent weeks on the political vacuum created by the resignation of the Ulster Unionist Party chief, Mr. David Trimble as head of the provincial government. He resigned in July to force the IRA to give up its weapons as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.

The British Government is under pressure to get the IRA to start decommissioning in order to save the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland and Mr. Trimble has accused the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair of following double standards on terrorism saying that there is a ``glaring contradiction between the Government's stance on international terrorism and on domestic paramilitarism''. He met Mr. Blair last week with the message that he should treat IRA the same way as he approached international terrorist organisations - ``tell it that if it does not deal properly with its weapons then it would suffer.'' He warned that Unionists would demand the expulsion of Sinn Fein from the provincial Government if there was no progress on deweaponisation. Mr. Trimble, who is under pressure from his own hardline colleagues to force the pace on the issue, is reported to be in touch with other Unionist groups to evolve a common strategy against Sinn Fein.

The new Tory chief, Mr. Ian Duncan Smith has echoed Mr. Trimble's criticism of the Blair Government.

Meanwhile, the Sinn Fein leader, Mr. Gerry Adams has reacted with anger to the Unionists' demand for his party's expulsion and said such threats could further delay decommissioning by IRA.

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