DUBLIN — Political and religious leaders pleaded Wednesday for Catholic teenagers and children engaged in Belfast rioting to stop before one of them is killed and becomes a martyr for Irish Republican Army dissidents.
Their appeals follow three nights of street mayhem in working-class Catholic parts of Belfast that one priest described as "a Disney theme park for rioting." Children as young as 9 have been attacking static lines of riot police, while other youths cheer them on and take photos for display on the Internet.
So far 83 police have been injured, none critically. The heavily armored officers have responded with water cannons and volleys of blunt-nosed plastic bullets capable of cracking ribs and skulls. No serious injuries among rioters have been reported, although injured rioters often avoid hospitalization because they face likely arrest.
"Sadly, those in the front line of public disorder appear to be mostly young people from disadvantaged areas looking to break the boredom of a long and inactive summer," said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.
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He warned that IRA dissidents trying to whip up opposition to Northern Ireland's systems of law and order "are actually hoping that one or more of the rioters will be killed or maimed in their conflict with the police, so that a new generation of martyrs for the cause will inspire others to follow."
The violence began Sunday night before mass Protestant parades by the Orange Order brotherhood, an annual event that always inflames sectarian tensions between the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority.
A Catholic priest who works in Ardoyne, a traditional IRA power base at the center of this week's trouble, said local youths want to attack the police regardless of any Orange provocations because they consider it fun.
"Recreational rioting is the term," said the Rev. Gary Donegan, a 46-year-old priest who has spent the past two nights trying to disarm youths and get them out of the streets.