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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Northern Ireland Parade Turns Violent

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Northern Ireland entered the most volatile week of its annual marching season on Monday under the pall of violence at Drumcree village where two dozen police were injured at the weekend battling Protestant demonstrators.

With hundreds of parades over coming days in the run-up to a major Protestant anniversary, Northern Ireland's 1.6 million inhabitants were bracing themselves for more sectarian violence.

Political leaders appealed for calm, but there were fears paramilitaries on both Protestant and Catholic sides could stoke more rioting and further undermine the British-ruled province's shaky peace process under the 1998 Good Friday accord.

"Things are a bit ugly round here. A quiet July 12 week would be nothing short of a miracle," a young woman said, pushing a pram past a huge pile of wood near a "peace-line" wall dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of Belfast.

Protestants across Northern Ireland, termed unionists or loyalists due to their support for keeping British links, will light bonfires as part of celebrations of Friday's anniversary of a Catholic defeat at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

Some 900 parades were taking place in a 10-day period around the Battle of the Boyne anniversary, according to Northern Ireland's Parades Commission, which oversees the marches.

Catholics, who mostly want unity with the Irish Republic to the south, have their own mini-marching season in August.

At Drumcree, for nearly a decade the location of the most volatile of marches organized by the Protestant Orange Order, several hundred remaining protesters abandoned their standoff in the early hours of Monday after receiving a drubbing from both a police water cannon and heavy rain.

They were demanding to pass through a military blockade that stopped a parade on Sunday from passing through a Catholic neighborhood between Drumcree and the nearby town of Portadown.

Youths, and some Orange Order members wearing their traditional orange sashes and best Sunday suits, broke through a two-meter, three-ton steel and concrete barrier, and attacked police with stones, bricks and bottles.

They were beaten back by police who, controversially, fired three rounds of plastic bullets at demonstrators. Three protesters and 24 policemen were injured, and five of the rioters were arrested.

Police said they would act swiftly to round up other rioters caught on camera at Drumcree. "These were crimes of attempted murder, people hitting police with rocks so heavy they could hardly lift them," said Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White, in charge of security at Drumcree.

Elsewhere around Northern Ireland, the Drumcree violence did not touch off any other serious rioting, as happened in the past.

Embarrassed that journalists saw some older Orange Order members participating in the violence at Drumcree, the organization condemned the riot on Monday and called for discipline and dignity at upcoming marches. "The violence was horrific," said George Patton, executive officer of the order.

Although loyalist and republican politicians are now sitting together in an assembly set up under the 1998 power-sharing agreement, on the ground sentiments are still often bitter. At Drumcree on Sunday, the Orange Order compared Catholics in their town with Nazis, while the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition accused the Protestants of being worse than Britain's extreme right-wing National Front.