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Riots continue near Belfast school

Riot police
Hundreds of police officers were deployed to quell the violence  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Rioting continued between Roman Catholics and Protestants early on Thursday as they clashed with police outside a Catholic girls' school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Two people were shot and wounded and several police officers were injured in rioting on Wednesday outside the school, a flashpoint of violence in the past.

Seventeen officers were hurt in the violence, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid told the Associated Press. Reid said 200 police officers and 200 soldiers had been deployed to calm the protesters.

Only a few dozen people appeared to be involved in the disturbance at first, but the crowd grew to several hundred. Holy Cross Primary School was the target of demonstrations last year by Protestant extremists, who shouted insults at schoolgirls and their parents as they went to and from school.

Stones, bricks, and bottles were hurled, and at the height of the violence two people were shot and wounded, police said. Their wounds were not life-threatening and they were treated at a hospital, police said.

Explosions were heard during the melee, but authorities could not say if they were caused by fireworks, improvised grenades or pipe bombs.

Police said the "serious public disturbances" began as parents were collecting their children after school. Catholics said the rioting started when a Catholic mother was punched in the face during an attack by Protestants.

Protestants said the disturbances started when a memorial to a local Protestant man was destroyed. Protestants claim that a Protestant school bus was attacked by Catholics in the wake of the disturbances.

The Holy Cross school, in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, was the scene of violent clashes last year in a bitter dispute over the route used by its Catholic students to get to class.

The school was built in the Protestant neighbourhood shortly before Northern Ireland's conflict ignited in 1969.

During the months of demonstrations last year, Protestant extremists blocked the road and shouted insults at the children and their parents.

The protests, which started violently but became largely peaceful, forced police to deploy hundreds of officers backed by soldiers to ensure the children's safety each day on their route to and from school.

The protesters, who said they were responding to Catholic attacks on their homes, called off their action in November after mediation by a number of figures including Northern Ireland minister David Trimble and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

"I'm afraid we could be back to square one again. There has been aggravation on the road since Monday," said Aidan Troy, chairman of the school's governors. "Thankfully all the children have been safely removed from the school."

Troy said he was not sure whether the school would reopen on Thursday.

In autumn's protests, dozens of young girls, some as young as four, endured either a daily torrent of insults and obscenities or stony silence from Protestant adults as the girls walked to and from school.

The scenes provoked outrage around the world and the seemingly intractable dispute seemed to defy mediation efforts by politicians. South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu was even brought in to try to bring calm.

The loyalists said the protests were in reply to intimidation by Catholics who used the school as a cover to come into a Protestant area.




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