BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Thousands of hard-line Protestants lit towering bonfires at midnight Wednesday to celebrate a victory from centuries past, but many worried whether they would win this month's battle to keep marching past Catholic areas.

Rowdy fife and drum bands entertained heavily drinking crowds at scores of bonfires _ stacks of wood planks, discarded furniture and tires, some 100 feet high _ before Wednesday's mass Orange Order parades across Northern Ireland. Adding to the air of menace, masked gunmen fired volleys of shots beside at least two bonfires.

Police said a man was shot and killed Wednesday and his body was found near a bonfire in Larne, County Antrim, about 20 miles north of Belfast.

There were no immediate details of the shooting but crowds at the bonfire briefly confronted police when they arrived to investigate.

More than a week of rioting has caused widespread intimidation, forcing businesses to close early and motorists off the roads, but done little to sway authorities' determination to prevent Orangemen from going near several hostile Catholic areas.

Police commanders said they hoped the turmoil would subside once the Orangemen march through Belfast and more than a dozen other towns Wednesday for the Twelfth, a profoundly divisive holiday that commemorates the 1690 victory of Protestant William of Orange over his Catholic foe, James II.

``We're taking nothing for granted, but the protests must run out of steam sometime,'' said Chief Superintendent Brian McCargo of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the province's mostly Protestant police force.

Police said 146 suspected rioters had been arrested, nearly 1,000 gasoline bombs seized, 88 vehicles hijacked and burned, and 57 officers and five British soldiers wounded since trouble first flared July 2.

Orange leaders urged their supporters Tuesday to behave ``in a totally peaceful manner'' and ``to be constant in prayer.''

But menacing groups of Protestants blocked more than a dozen major roads in Belfast as darkness fell, a scene repeated in at least 10 other predominantly Protestant towns.

Once again, some of the worst trouble was brewing in Portadown, a stronghold of Orange loyalties, where more than 2,000 soldiers and police have spent the week barring Protestants from the town's surrounded Catholic neighborhood, Garvaghy Road.

Police used attack dogs, clubs and shields to force a 100-strong crowd away from one heavily defended entrance to Garvaghy Road. After dark, a mob of drunken youths left a bonfire to barrage police and soldiers with bottles and rocks.

The intimidation wasn't all one way. Anti-Protestant arsonists struck a rural Orange hall with gasoline bombs while a meeting was going on inside. All six Protestants inside were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. And British army bomb-disposal experts examined a series of suspicious packages at other Orange lodges that turned out to be hoaxes.

The Twelfth has always served to deepen intercommunal tensions between British Protestants and Irish Catholics, who generally loathe the marches, which they see as provocative.

The Orange Order, founded in 1795 near Portadown during another period of tense rivalry between Protestants and Catholics, was crucial to Northern Ireland's foundation as a Protestant-majority state in the 1920s, when the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland broke free of Britain.

Until recent years, its marches stirred much loathing but little violence, largely because Orangemen paraded the same routes year after year without challenge. But ever since 1995, when militant Catholic groups began blocking a few key parades that pass near or through Catholic areas, July has become a sectarian battleground.

To Orange fury, British authorities gradually have opted to block the most controversial processions in Belfast and Portadown rather than provoke Catholic riots.

A government-appointed Parades Commission has ordered Orangemen to steer clear of several predominantly Catholic villages Wednesday, as well as Lower Ormeau, a Catholic enclave beside a major south Belfast road. In response, Belfast Orangemen plan to divert their entire city parade to a park across the Lagan River from Lower Ormeau.