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N. Irish group claims gun attack

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- A pro-British Protestant group has claimed responsibility for a gun attack on a Belfast community centre in which children and adults narrowly escaped injury.

The Red Hand Defenders, a maverick "loyalist" group that said it killed a Roman Catholic man on July 4, warned that it considered all Irish nationalists "legitimate targets."

Gunmen opened fire on the centre in a Catholic district but caused no injuries even after firing into a children's after-school project, police and witnesses said. Police said two gunmen were involved.

"No injuries were caused although a number of people suffered shock," a police spokeswoman told Reuters.

A caller to a Belfast television station using a recognised code word claimed the attack on behalf of the Red Hand Defenders.

"Our campaign will escalate and we consider all nationalist people as hostile and legitimate targets," the caller said. The target of the attack was a former republican prisoner who worked at the centre, according to the caller.

The Red Hand Defenders is a banned organisation but security analysts say it is also a cover name that has been used by militants in other "loyalist" guerrilla groups.

Jim Deery, a community activist, told BBC radio the gunmen had targeted people inside the center.

"Two gunmen came in the back of the premises and fired at people, and actually fired into an after-school project where there were children," he said. "There are two bullet holes in the door. It's a miracle that no one was killed."

The attack drew condemnation from parties on both sides of Northern Ireland's political and sectarian divide.

The shootings follow a suspected gun and bomb attack on a police station in Castlewellan, County Down, on Thursday.

The building was empty at the time, and the blast caused only slight damage.

Eamonn O'Neill, a Roman Catholic politician who lives near the station, said he heard shots and an explosion.

"Just after 11.30 p.m. (2230 GMT) there were five or six shots discharged," he said. "That was followed very quickly afterwards by a small sharp explosion.

"We dived to the floor because it sounded so close," he told Reuters.

The shooting is the latest in a series of attempts by dissident militant groups to derail the peace process.

• Good Friday Agreement
• Northern Ireland Assembly
• Northern Ireland Office
• British Prime Minister
• Irish Prime Minister

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