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24 April 2003 Edition

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Attacks ongoing as marching season begins

Anxiety is growing within nationalist communities throughout the Six Counties as unionist paramilitaries step up their campaign of sectarian violence and intimidation.

Over the course of the last number of weeks, there has been a barrage of sectarian attacks leading up to the Orange marching season and there are concerns that the increase in loyalist activity could mean nationalists are in for a long, violent summer.

Just prior to the Easter holiday weekend, the Ulster Political Research Group issued a statement calling for calm in Belfast interface areas over Easter. It was, the public was told, an attempt to avert violence.

"The UPRG will be taking the necessary steps to ensure as much as possible that no trouble will flare up in loyalist areas and would hope republicans would reciprocate," read the statement.

But nationalists were not particularly optimistic about the appeal, knowing only too well that UDA's intention are best judged by their actions on the ground. Sure enough, the ink had barely dried on the UPRG statement when sectarian attacks on nationalists resumed unabated.

On Thursday 17 April, the windows of a Catholic home along the Crumlin Road in North Belfast were smashed, and several others also came under attack when unionist youths began throwing stones around 8pm. The Housing Executive has confirmed it is to meet with several Catholics living in the area to discuss plans to protect their houses from future attacks.

On Good Friday - more than 100 people were involved in a standoff on the Limestone Road.

Trouble flared around 9.45pm after a confrontation in nearby Alexander Park. Unionist paramilitaries then set off a "siren" in the Tigers Bay area, summoning more loyalists onto the street. The mob then attempted to enter the nationalist Newington area and clashes with nationalist residents ensued.

A Catholic family had a lucky escape when a pipe bomb was thrown into the back of their Limestone Road home. The device was one of a number of devices thrown at houses in the area. Remnants of the weapon were found by local residents the next day.

As well as the pipe bomb, unionists threw bricks, bottles, and fireworks during more than an hour of intense and sustained violence. The PSNI sat nearby in several Land Rovers but did not move in until the British Army had arrived to back them up.

"The UDA was behind this," said Sinn Féin's Gerard Brophy angrily, "and I'm not impressed at all with their appeal for calm. It's funny that whenever they decide to stop trouble, the interface areas are quiet. That proves they are responsible."

Local residents say that every night of the previous week, there had been small incursions by unionist paramilitaries, from incidents of stone throwing to the more sinister appearance of masked men on the fringes of the road.

On Easter Saturday, two Twinbrook youths were threatened by loyalists as they waited to start work at their place of employment on Boucher Road.

James Allen, who is 18, and his 16-year-old cousin Daniel Kennedy, were outside the car showroom where they work part-time around 8.45am on Saturday morning, when two cars began to drive back and forth beside them.

James says he and Daniel knew immediately that something was wrong.

"Each car contained a man and a woman. The men were in their mid-30s. They reversed alongside us and the men got out. They asked us where we were from and started edging towards us. Daniel ran and one of them chased him. He fell and cut himself and I pulled a ligament in my left hand.

"It was a miracle we got away. I dread to think what would have happened if we hadn't."

James says the cars finally drove off in the direction of the unionist Village estate. Both young men have said they will now have to leave their jobs.

"It is not worth the risk," said James simply.

In another incident, a Coleraine man barely escaped with his life after a petrol bomb attack took place at his home in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The man awoke after hearing a noise and found his bed in flames. He was discovered by firefighters after he collapsed in the hallway of his flat on Glebe Avenue, and was taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.

The attack took place around 12.50am on 20 April. The PSNI confirmed they found the remains of a petrol bomb inside the house, but claim they have not determined if the attack was sectarian. However, the same area has fallen victim to a sectarian attacks in the past.

There was also an arson attack on the Rathmore Grammer School near Dunmurry, South Belfast, on the weekend.

It was the seventh such attack in the past seven years and the second attack on the school since it erected security fencing. Flammable liquid was poured through a window broken by the arsonists and thousands of pounds damage was caused to the chemistry lab.

These incidents, however, are only the latest in the ongoing sectarian campaign being waged by unionist paramilitaries.

On noon on Saturday, 12 April, a group of nationalist young people between eight and 20 years of age were attacked by a gang of unionist paramilitaries at the bottom of Ligoniel Road in North Belfast.

The two young men and four young women were attacked and beaten with large sticks as they walked through the carpark of a pensioner's fold. One of the boys later received staples to his head. One of the girls sustained bad bruising to her legs.

Two cars were also attacked in the area as they stopped at a set of lights on the Friday night before, and a further three vehicles were later targeted on the same day the beating took place.

Meanwhile, in the Longlands area of north Belfast, a school bus carrying Catholic students home from school was attacked with bricks by two female unionist youths as it passed the White City estate.

The attack took place around 3.30pm on Tuesday 15 April as the vehicle stopped to allow students to disembark. Two girls from Little Flower Secondary School on the Antrim Road were badly shaken when a brick shattered the window of their bus, striking one on the back.

Sinn Féin's Briege Meehan said she "utterly condemned" the attack and added she hoped it did not signal a return to violence in the area.

There have been numerous attacks on nationalists and their children in recent weeks.

There was also a serious abduction bid by unionist paramilitaries in the Duncairn Gardens area of north Belfast. The incident took place on Saturday 29 March, when a gang of four men attacked a young Catholic and tried to drag him into a waiting car.

The 20-year-old man had been walking alone along the Antrim Road in the early hours of the morning when a group of men jumped out of a blue Ford Escort at the top of Duncairn Gardens and attacked him. One of them struck the victim several times on the head and body with a hammer.

The young man managed to break free and ran down Atlantic Avenue to escape, pursued by the gang.

The youth was later treated in hospital for head injuries. His father says he has been too frightened to leave the house alone since the brutal attack.

"He was lucky to escape. It was terrifying for him. This is terrible; it's like something out of the 1970's when the Shankill Butchers were killing people. My son could have ended up dead if these thugs had got their way."

The PSNI says it has not established a motive for the attack, but there is little doubt that unionist paramilitaries are behind the incident and that the PSNI was well aware of their presense in the area.

Sinn Féin's Gerard Brophy says he had received reports of a suspect vehicle hanging about the nationalist Antrim Road/Duncairn area more than three days prior to the attack.

"They chased a young fellow down the Antrim Road the Wednesday night before this." says Brophy, "It was the same car, the same description of the occupants. The young fellow they were after that time managed to escape into an entry, but over the next few days I received further calls from residents expressing their fears and concerns about a suspicious vehicle. Each time the report was the same - a car containing several men cruising about and attempting to stop or intercept people.

"When the PSNI came to interview the young man who was attacked with the hammer, they were given a desciption of the car and its occupants. It was then that the PSNI admitted to the young man's father that they had been trying to intercept this same vehicle for two days prior to the attack.

"What does it say about the level of protection the PSNI are providing to nationalists if they knew about this vehicle days in advance and yet this car was still able to go in and out of this area unhindered?"

Brophy repeated his warning for Catholics in the area to be vigilant.

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