Weekend killings in Belfast fuel violence - and questions

Northern Ireland slid deeper into violence and tribal-like intolerance with the spontaneous murders of two British Army men. Saturday's incident was unusually brutal even in comparison with the long history of guerrilla warfare in Ulster, as this British province is known.

Observers here say it shows that partisan feelings in Northern Ireland are running out of control, in reaction to the killing of three members of the militant ``provisional'' Irish Republican Army (IRA) by British soldiers in Gibraltar two weeks ago.

Saturday's mob attack on the soldiers also raises questions about the new tactics of government security forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army.

Since last week, the security forces have tried to lower tensions and avoid confrontations by keeping out of sight at funeral ceremonies conducted by Republican (Roman Catholic) sympathizers. But, for the second time in three days, the violence took place in public view during a funeral for a slain IRA man. In some respects it was the most puzzling of at least eight murders in Ulster in a week.

Two young corporals in the British Army's signal corps, both carrying pistols and wearing civilian clothes, drove their car into the midst of an IRA funeral procession in a republican area of west Belfast on Saturday. Challenged by guards of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) at the procession, the soldiers tried to escape but were pulled from their car by mourners and severely beaten before being carried away and shot. The IRA later took responsibility for their ``execution.''

It is unclear whether the two were on special military assignment or had blundered into the area on their own.

The commander of the Army's Northern Ireland communications group said they were ``carrying out a routine communications project'' and traveling between military bases. Another spokesman said they had been briefed to avoid the area and had ``probably got lost.''

Within minutes of the killings, Sinn Fein released a statement rejecting the Army's account and insisting the soldiers were on a covert surveillance mission. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader who was among those heading the funeral march, said the soldier's presence had ``all the hallmarks of an official British undercover dirty tricks operation.'' He claimed to have evidence that he said would be made public this week.

As with other violence last week, Catholic and Protestant church leaders and politicians in London and Dublin condemned the murders. Tom King, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, announced in London an investigation into the murders and vowed to punish those responsible.

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