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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Northern Ireland Prepares For Saturday Showdown

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Roman Catholic protesters and Protestant marchers are headed for collisions in Northern Ireland's two major cities this Saturday, fanning sectarian passions after three exhausting nights of Catholic riots.

Protestants say their superior numbers will make Belfast stand still if the security forces don't keep the way clear. Catholic militants may try to occupy the marchers' intended routes overnight.

Paramilitary groups on both sides are threatening to murder at random if their tribe doesn't prevail.

The Defense Ministry said Wednesday it had deployed an additional battalion to Northern Ireland.

"Let's face it, practically nobody wants to go into the nightmare that may be about to envelop us,'' said Eamonn McCann, a veteran civil rights activist who witnessed how Catholic opposition to a traditional Protestant march launched Northern Ireland's conflict in Aug. 12, 1969.

But neither side in Belfast or Londonderry is prepared to talk following the British authorities' decision Sunday to overwhelm the main Catholic section of Portadown with 1,500 riot police and troops so that about 1,000 Protestant marchers could go through.

That provoked rioting in Catholic areas across Northern Ireland that has left more than 100 civilians and police wounded and at least ?12 million ($19 million) in wrecked property, including 440 vehicles hijacked and burned. IRA gunmen fired wildly at British forces from Sunday to Wednesday, hitting two officers, and on Wednesday kept up pressure with hoax bombs in cars and under roadways.

The Orange Order, Northern Ireland's long-dominant Protestant fraternal group, is determined to march across the province Saturday in commemoration of the 1690s victories of King William of Orange over the deposed Catholic king, James II -- the campaign that Protestants say secured their superior position.

Five parades will encounter organized opposition Saturday, but the critical two are when 1,000 Orangemen march through the Catholic Lower Ormeau section of south Belfast's Ormeau Road, and later in Londonderry, 75 miles northwest of Belfast, where 10,000 Orangemen hope to parade through the city center within earshot of the Catholic Bogside below.

The Defense Ministry said Wednesday it had deployed an additional battalion to Northern Ireland.

John Hume, Londonderry's moderate Catholic member of British Parliament, asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to pursue "a moratorium of all street activity and all marches.''

Hume's deputy, Seamus Mallon, condemned Blair's government for making march-related decisions that were not "based on natural justice, or equity, or on any semblance of principle -- but on the threat of greater force.''

Facing both men in the House of Commons, Blair said "it is very difficult, if not impossible'' to resolve the marching disputes but urged Catholic politicians to keep pursuing a peace settlement.

Orange marches through the Lower Ormeau have a bitter recent history. In February 1992, pro-British gunmen retaliating for an earlier IRA massacre riddled the neighborhood's betting shop, killing five men.

When Orangemen passed by that July, they and their supporters taunted residents with chants of "5-0!'' and holding up five fingers.