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Gunmen open fire on British troops

July 12, 1997

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Gunmen wounded three British soldiers and two police at a checkpoint in north Belfast late Friday, police said, in an attack on the eve of Protestant marches throughout Northern Ireland.

Hospital official said none of the injuries was life-threatening.

Official details were sketchy, but residents of the Catholic enclave of Ardoyne, a bastion of support for the outlawed Irish Republican Army, said about 20 shots were fired at the checkpoint. The attackers also threw a grenade at the security forces before speeding away.

Earlier Friday, gunmen fired at a Protestant gathering in north Belfast, hitting an 18-year-old man in the leg and scattering the crowd.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack, which came after Northern Ireland’s main Protestant fraternal group, the Orange Order, made an unprecedented conciliatory gesture to Catholics by agreeing to cancel or reroute four marches Saturday that Catholic militants had vowed to block.

The sudden decision brought widespread relief to the province, but did not wipe out fears of more violence.

Many enraged members of the main Protestant organization vowed to defy their leaders’ decision, calling it a betrayal, and said they would gather as planned Saturday in Belfast, Londonderry, Newry and Armagh.

A march last Sunday by the Orange Order _ an all-male Pro-British Protestant association _ sparked three nights of rioting in Catholic areas across Northern Ireland.

More Protestant-Catholic clashes were expected this weekend in the face of a concerted campaign by Catholic protesters to block parades.

Robert Saulters, head of the 80,000-member Orange Order, said the unprecedented decision Thursday to cancel or reroute some of the Saturday marches was necessary because ``we were keyed up to the state of nearly being in a civil war.″

Saulters acknowledged that members in his native Belfast had given him ``a hot reception″ over his decision. ``There’s no capitulation. I know we can’t satisfy everyone,″ he said.

Joel Patton, leader of a growing dissident Orange group, called it a ``terrible betrayal.″

``My phone has been ringing all morning by people that are saying they are tired, fed up and what are we going to do now,″ Patton said. ``I’m telling them: These men took a decision without your consent and over your head. Now don’t you acquiesce in this _ every one of you go to those four areas and make your feelings known.″

Protestant marches were canceled in Belfast and Newry, 30 miles to the south. One was rerouted in Armagh, 40 miles southwest of Belfast, and _ most surprisingly of all _ a march planned for Londonderry, the province’s second-largest city, was moved to nearby Limavady.

Meanwhile, Protestants still planned Orange parades Saturday in three mainly Catholic villages _ Dunloy, Bellaghy and Pomeroy.

Several hundred parades will go ahead Saturday without protest in predominantly Protestant parts of Northern Ireland. All commemorate the 1690 military victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the deposed Catholic monarch, James II.

The Orange Order, founded in 1795, was a dominant influence in the creation of Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state in 1920. To Catholics it is synonymous with anti-Catholicism.

Ronnie Flanagan, commander of the British-ruled province’s 12,000-member police force, told the Orangemen that police and soldiers would be unable to clear parade routes if thousands of Catholic protesters massed as expected in south Belfast and Londonderry.

``It was made clear to us that we risked serious violence and possibly the loss of life if we went ahead,″ said Noel Liggett, leader of the Orange chapter in south Belfast.

Gerard Marshall, an Orangeman opposed to canceling marches, said Saulters and other leaders should be ``replaced by men who understand grassroots feeling within the order.″

Such attitudes exposed a key reason why Northern Ireland’s three-decade-old conflict has proved so unsolvable: Whenever pressed to compromise, Northern Ireland’s insecure Protestant community fractures and turns to increasingly hard-line leaders.

Indeed, on Friday, the Belfast branch of the Orange called on the main Protestant political parties to withdraw from talks on Northern Ireland’s future, which began last year.

Britain challenged the Irish Republican Army on Friday to respond to the Orange Order’s conciliatory step with a renewed cease-fire.

Britain will not admit Sinn Fein, the IRA-allied party, to talks on the political future of Northern Ireland until the Irish Republican Army renews the truce it abandoned 17 months ago.

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