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Facing hate on the way to school

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BELFAST — Roman Catholic girls returned to a school beset by violence in north Belfast on Friday after a night of sectarian rioting injured more than 30 police and soldiers.

"I can't believe we've returned to the bad old days again, but I have no car and this is the only way I can take my child to school," said a Catholic mother who gave her name as Mary, holding her daughter Catherine's hand as she walked to the Holy Cross Catholic girls' school.

On Thursday night and Friday morning, Catholic and Protestant youths hurled scores of petrol bombs, acid bombs, rocks and homemade "blast bombs" at police and troops keeping them apart in the flashpoint Ardoyne area.

More than 30 police officers and soldiers were injured and six cars were burned in the ugliest sectarian clashes in Northern Ireland in months.

One Catholic mother said Protestants taunted her as she walked her niece to school, but there were few incidents.

Father Aidan Troy, chairman of the school's board of governors, said most Holy Cross pupils had returned.

"I'm so relieved that the children are in school. I've been into the school and some of them are upset and some are very quiet but the majority are there and that's what we called for," he said.

Hardline Protestant politician Billy Hutchinson said Ardoyne residents did not want to be "political pawns" and the latest dispute was not about Holy Cross School.

At least eight armoured police Land Rovers lined the Ardoyne Road, where houses of pro-British Protestant loyalists face the Catholic Holy Cross school. A police helicopter hovered overhead and police on foot kept a watchful eye under rainy skies.

Police said they hoped for calm after the riots and had adopted what a police source called a "softly, softly approach."

The school was closed on Thursday after a dispute nearby the day before prompted the riots.

Politicians and community leaders had spent the day trying to calm passions in the run-down district, but their efforts were in vain as hundreds of youths took to the streets.

A police spokesman said 31 police and three soldiers were injured in the clashes, and one policeman and one soldier had to remain in hospital, but gave no further details.

Police said some 90 petrol bombs were thrown by the rioters, 44 by pro-British loyalists, while seven cars were hijacked and six set alight, police said.

Police fired plastic riot-control bullets as the security cordon became stretched by the escalating violence.

The trouble was sparked on Wednesday afternoon by an altercation between a Catholic woman and a Protestant woman as Catholic parents went to collect children from Holy Cross.

Holy Cross, located in a Protestant enclave bordering a Catholic neighbourhood, was at the centre of ugly confrontations during a 12-week protest by Protestant residents last year.

Television viewers around the world were shocked by images of young girls guarded by riot police and troops as they ran a gauntlet of hate walking to school.

Northern Ireland ended 2001 with some hope of progress in solving the conflict between Protestants and Catholics which has cost 3,600 lives—a quarter of them in north Belfast—over more than 30 years, but gulfs between the communities remain.