BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – Crowds of Protestant hard-liners blocked key roads in Belfast during evening rush hour Monday, while thousands of police equipped with water cannon and tear gas stood ready for a threatened third night of rioting in the capital.

At least 50 officers were wounded over the weekend when extremists fought riot police and British troops in the worst Protestant violence in a decade. The British governor and chief of the territory’s police said two outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups were responsible for the machine-gun and grenade attacks on police.

The rampage followed British authorities’ refusal Saturday to permit the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s major Protestant brotherhood, to parade as they usually do each year along the boundary of Catholic west Belfast.

Monday’s road blockades, formed by thousands of men, women and children, caused traffic jams that lasted for hours. Adding to the chaos were troublemakers who called Belfast businesses and, pretending to be police officers, ordered them to send workers home and close early on security grounds.

Police reported no resumption of rioting early in the evening – but appeared to be taking no chances.

Several thousand police equipped with shields, body armor, flame-retardant suits, guns loaded with plastic bullets, armored personnel carriers, mobile water cannon and tear gas were on standby in fortified barracks across this city of 600,000. About 1,200 British troops also were deployed.

British governor Peter Hain and police commander Hugh Orde said the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association, which are supposed to be observing cease-fires in support of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, carried out the weekend attacks on police.

Hain said he would issue a policy statement within the next few days, raising widespread expectations he will withdraw Britain’s recognition of the groups’ 1994 cease-fire. Their truce has been repeatedly violated over the past decade, but rarely so brazenly .

as last weekend.

“The evidence I have seen is absolutely clear-cut. If it wasn’t clear-cut before, it’s absolutely categorical now,” said Hain.

Police have accused the Ulster Volunteer Force, which wields brutal authority in many Protestant parts of Belfast and runs a range of criminal rackets including counterfeiting and smuggling cigarettes, of killing four Protestant men this summer in a turf war with a breakaway drug dealing gang.

Hain could order a return to prison for dozens of UVF and UDA convicts who received prison paroles as part of the 1998 peace deal. Catholic leaders demanded sterner action against both groups.

But police, Protestant politicians and political analysts warned the deep-seated Protestant alienation that is driving the riots requires a diplomatic rather than security solution.

“Quite clearly, what you have here is a politics of fatalism, a community that sees itself as not being listened to,” said University of Ulster social scientist Peter Shirlow.

As with Saturday’s parade, disputes of geography and social status – driven by many Catholics’ hatred of Orange marches, and by Protestants’ fears of being forced out by a faster-growing Catholic community – caused widespread rioting from 1996 to 1998.

Since then, a government-appointed Parades Commission has imposed restrictions on the most controversial Protestant parades, an authority that Orangemen have never accepted.

The Orange Order appealed to Protestants to mount illegal protests Saturday all over Belfast, but have refused to accept any responsibility for the subsequent rioting.

Mitchell Reiss, President Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland, accused mainstream Protestant politicians of making bogus excuses for rioters.

“I think all of us are pretty disappointed with the abdication of responsibility by many (Protestant) unionist leaders,” Reiss said in Belfast. “No political party, and certainly no responsible political leadership, deserves to serve in a government unless it cooperates and supports fully and unconditionally the police, and calls on its supporters to do so.”

AP-ES-09-12-05 1809EDT

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