Masked and hooded Belfast Catholics hurled gasoline bombs, fireworks and other makeshift weapons at police Monday as the most bitterly divisive day on the Northern Ireland calendar reached an ugly end, Associated Press reported.
Irish nationalists in Ardoyne, a militant Catholic enclave of north Belfast, were trying to block a parade by the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant brotherhood. Tens of thousands of Orangemen spent Monday mounting hundreds of similar parades across this British territory, almost all of them trouble-free, in an annual test for the province's fragile peace.
More than 1,000 Orangemen and their accompanying bandsmen eventually did march down the main road past Ardoyne to the beat of a lone drum - but only after riot police fought an hourlong street battle backed by a surveillance helicopter and three massive mobile water cannons.
At one point, masked Catholic rioters on the roofs of stores directed a deluge of Molotov cocktails, bricks and even golf balls on the riot police below. Later, as the water-cannon gunners sought to take rioters' legs out from under them, Catholics wearing scarves over their faces took cover behind low brick walls and post boxes. They threw rocks, bricks, bottles and even planks of wood that bounced harmlessly off the armored sides and metal-grilled windows of the water-cannon vehicles.
Several rioters and at least one officer were injured, none seriously.
Northern Ireland's "Twelfth" holiday typically raises community tensions to their highest point of the year as British Protestants celebrate centuries-old victories over Irish Catholics accompanied by so-called "kick the pope" bands that play an odd mix of Gospel and sectarian tunes on shrill flutes and deafening drums.
Monday's parades were preceded by a string of overnight attacks northwest of Belfast that damaged two Orange halls and two Protestant homes, one of them gutted by fire. Catholic youths cheered the blaze and jeered the home's elderly occupants, who vowed to leave behind their Catholic neighbors after 32 years.
Elsewhere, drunken Protestant youths pelted police with beer bottles on the edge of the biggest Orange parade in Belfast.
And Catholic youths struck two departing Orangemen in the head with rocks in the village of Rasharkin. Three police officers were injured in subsequent scuffles with Catholics.
During another Orange parade in the city of Armagh, 40 miles (65 kms) southwest of Belfast, police evacuated a major street because of a suspected small bomb. It detonated, injuring nobody and causing little damage, before British army experts could defuse it using a remote-controlled robot.
No group claimed responsibility but police and politicians blamed Irish Republican Army dissidents who are trying to keep alive the IRA's abandoned campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The dissidents also were blamed for planting a fake van bomb Friday night in the province's second-largest city, Londonderry, shutting down a major bridge for more than 24 hours.
"The Twelfth" officially commemorates the July 12, 1690, triumph of Protestant King William of Orange versus the Catholic he deposed from the English throne, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne south of Belfast. This year the parades took place on the 13th because Orangemen - who march beneath banners depicting the British crown on an open Bible - refuse to hold the holiday on a Sunday.
Orangemen once marched wherever they wanted in Northern Ireland, a state created on the back of Orange power as the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain in the early 1920s.
Catholic hostility to Protestant parades helped ignite a conflict over Northern Ireland's future that claimed more than 3,600 lives from the late 1960s to mid-1990s, when paramilitary cease-fires finally took hold.
At that time, the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party led street confrontations against Orangemen that brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war - and ultimately ended in broad defeat for the Orangemen. They stubbornly refused to negotiate and failed to overturn new British bans on parades past the most militant Catholic turf.
On Monday, a podiums in Belfast and 18 other rallying points, leaders of the Protestant fraternal group emphasized their self-image as law-abiding victims of a peace process that rewarded Catholic aggressors.
As a soft rain fell, they led supporters in prayers for more than 330 members killed in IRA attacks since 1970. The order's grand master, Robert Saulters, told one rally that Protestants today faced renewed "ethnic cleansing" - a term coined during the Yugoslav wars to describe the elimination of an entire enemy community.
The Orangemen also pledged, in a formally scripted vow, their continued "devotion and loyalty to the Throne and Person of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms - Defender of The Faith."