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Riots in Northern Ireland after arrests

Irish nationalist gangs hurl petrol bombs at police after three men are arrested on suspicion of killing two British soldiers.

LURGAN, NORTHERN IRELAND // Irish nationalist gangs hurled petrol bombs at police after three alleged IRA dissidents were arrested on suspicion of killing two British soldiers in an attack designed to trigger wider violence in Northern Ireland. Police in armoured cars and flame-retardant suits said none of their officers was injured during the rising mob violence on Saturday in the Irish Catholic end of Lurgan, a religiously divided town south-west of Belfast.

Rioters also blocked the main Belfast-to-Dublin railway line that runs alongside the hardline Kilwilkie neighbourhood of the town. Later, police said they arrested a 37-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman, and seized a gun and ammunition in the neighbouring town of Craigavon, where Irish Republican Army dissidents shot to death a policeman on Monday. Militants who want to end British control of Northern Ireland by force number around 300, the province's police chief said today. "These groups are small. The Real and Continuity IRA are disrupted, infiltrated and disorganised," Chief Constable Hugh Orde wrote in the British newspaper the News of the World today. "We are working flat out with the security services and other specialists to disrupt and arrest them and lock them up for the rest of their lives." Police would not say whether those arrests and the arms find were connected to the March 7 shooting of the soldiers or the subsequent killing of the policeman.

Police said the couple were being questioned about unspecified "serious terrorist crime". The unrest came in direct response to yesterday's arrest of Colin Duffy, 41, the best-known Irish republican in Lurgan. Police arrested two other suspected Irish Republican Army dissidents aged 32 and 21 in the overwhelmingly Catholic village of Bellaghy - all on suspicion of shooting to death two soldiers last weekend.

Police arrested two teenage rioters and advised motorists to stay away from the Catholic north side of Lurgan to avoid having their cars seized and burnt as road barricades. Police long considered Duffy the IRA godfather of Lurgan and twice charged him with murders in the town in the run-up to the IRA's 1997 ceasefire - which breakaway factions are now trying to destroy. Duffy was convicted of killing a former soldier in Lurgan in 1993, but was freed on appeal three years later after the key witness against him was identified as a member of an outlawed Protestant gang.

He was back behind bars within a year after police identified him as the gunman who committed the IRA's last two killings before its ceasefire: two Protestant policemen shot point-blank through the backs of their heads while on foot patrol in Lurgan in June 1997. The prosecutors' case against Duffy collapsed after their key witness suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew her testimony. Saturday's arrest of Duffy appeared likely to pose a political challenge for Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that is the leading Irish nationalist voice in Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration - and is trying to convince Protestants of its new-found support for British law and order.

*Agencies