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NI 'sleepwalking into abyss'

Police warn Northern Ireland is heading for
Police warn Northern Ireland is heading for "a fresh nightmare"  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland is "sleepwalking into an abyss," the acting police chief has warned, after a night of rioting in which three people were shot.

Three Protestants -- a 39-year-old man and two 15-year-old boys -- were injured during clashes in east Belfast late on Sunday.

Angry crowds threw homemade gas bombs, setting two houses on fire, and Protestants and Catholics pelted each other with stones.

Sunday night's sectarian shooting brought a warning from Acting Chief Constable Colin Cramphorn that Northern Ireland was heading for "a fresh nightmare."

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Speaking at police headquarters in Belfast, Cramphorn said: "We are only just at the beginning of the summer season and yet we have seen truly disturbing incidents of public disorder during the weekend.

"Everybody needs to understand that they are the losers in this. Not only are police and military colleagues suffering by acting as a buffer between the communities and thereby preserving life, but both communities are suffering.

"We have seen pensioners forced out of their homes on both sides, property set on fire and persons shot."

There have been claims by loyalists that the Provisional IRA started the trouble while on the nationalist side the protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force were being blamed.

Both organisations are supposed to be adhering to a cease-fire and while Cramphorn said he was not going to get into the "blame game," he added there was evidence of orchestration of the violence by both sides.

"Both sides need to realise the severity of the situation we are facing. They are sleepwalking into an abyss," he said.

"It is only a question of time before somebody is killed unless steps are taken to de-escalate the situation."

Cramphorn warned: "They need to stop and realise that the entire community on the island of Ireland and potentially beyond in Great Britain will pay a very heavy price if they walk off that abyss."

David Ervine, whose Progressive Unionist Party is linked to the outlawed UVF group, told The Associated Press that the wounded man had been hit in the back and legs and was "ill but comfortable." He said the two teenagers had been shot in the legs.

"These people have gone through a weekend of terror," Ervine said.

But Joe O'Donnell, a city council member from Sinn Fein, political allies of the IRA, told AP that Protestants provoked the Short Strand area residents.

"I understand there have been shots fired from here tonight, but there was gunfire into here first," O'Donnell said on Sunday.

Mobs have been fighting on the streets of Belfast for several nights, and sporadically for months. Ten police officers have been injured in recent days.

Cramphorn said police were trying to identify ringleaders of the recent troubles, and had arrested 14 people in recent weeks.

Earlier on Sunday, about 100 people fought in the Whitewell Road area of north Belfast, throwing stones, bottles, paint and gas bombs at police and soldiers who were trying to keep them apart.

Two people were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour.


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