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Peaceful School Day in Northern Ireland - 2001-09-06


Roman Catholic school girls in Northern Ireland safely came and went from school Thursday on the fourth day of a violent turf war between Catholics and Protestants in North Belfast.

Scores of Catholic schoolgirls, some of them only four-years-old, managed to attend Belfast's Holy Cross Primary School without serious incident Thursday.

Many of the girls clung to their parents as they passed a gauntlet of Protestant demonstrators, who blew whistles and banged garbage can lids in a loud but peaceful protest.

A police helicopter hovered overhead. Armored vehicles guarded the route. Helmeted police, with visors down and shields up, stood by in case violence broke out.

Tensions ran high ahead of classes Thursday. A day earlier, a pipe bomb had gone off and seriously injured two policemen who were escorting the students. A Protestant paramilitary faction called the Red Hand Defenders has claimed responsibility. Three suspects have been arrested.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid cut short a vacation and returned to the troubled province Thursday to deal with the crisis. He says the violence has repulsed the whole world. "Whatever legitimate grievances the people of North Belfast may or may not have," he said, "it is impossible to hear them above the pictures and the awful consequences of the savage sectarian attacks that have been taking place."

This was the fourth day of protests outside the Catholic school, which is surrounded by a neighborhood of Protestant homes along Belfast's Ardoyne Road.

Parents of many of the Holy Cross students have refused demands that they enter the school by the back door, over a less controversial route.

Catholic parents are organizing a rally in the neighborhood for Friday. They are inviting Protestant religious leaders to participate.

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