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Tension marks Orange Order marches

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON JULY 12. Large parts of Northern Ireland were tense today following sectarian clashes as members of the hardline Protestant Orange Order, defying an official ban, marched through the sensitive Catholic areas to commemorate an over 400-year-old victory which established Protestant supremacy in Ireland.

In many places, angry Catholic protesters hurled missiles at marchers, and security forces came under attack when they tried to restrain them. However, no major incident was reported until late in the afternoon, though police were keeping their fingers crossed until the last of the marches were over.

July 12 is the most important date on the Orangemen's calendar and is invariably marked by violence as Catholics try to disrupt the marches which they describe as a deliberate provocation.

After last Sunday's clashes during a preliminary parade, police were not taking any chances today. They said they were determined to prevent a repeat of the large-scale violence on July 12 last year when over 150 people were injured.

Many areas in Belfast were placed under a thick security blanket with hundreds of policemen and soldiers standing by to prevent a confrontation after an intelligence warning that Republican groups planned to attack the marches. Large quantities of petrol and acid bombs were seized in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, which has been the scene of some of the worst sectarian clashes in the past.

``We have very clear information that large numbers of Republican youths are being bussed into the area and that large quantities of petrol bombs and acid bombs are being manufactured,'' a senior police officer, Alan McQuillan, told journalists ahead of the start of the marches.

Republicans denied this saying the allegation was an `excuse' to swamp the area with security men and blame any violence on Catholics.

Community relations in Northern Ireland have worsened in recent months amid growing concern over the future of the peace process which has been hit by renewed tensions between Unionists and Republicans following allegations that the IRA is "secretly'' re-arming itself despite its commitment to give up weapons.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, held talks with rival sides last week to defuse the crisis after Unionists threatened to expel Sinn Fein-the political wing of IRA-from Northern Ireland's coalition government if it did not rein in the IRA.

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