London (CNSNews.com) - British forces stepped up security in Northern Ireland Thursday after the worst violence seen there for two years.
Pro-British Protestant "loyalists" have clashed with security forces for four nights in a row in protests initially sparked by a ban on a traditional loyalist march through a Roman Catholic area.
Protestors have been throwing gasoline bombs, setting up barricades and torching cars. Soldiers erected a large steel barrier at one of the main flashpoints on the march route in an attempt to prevent further clashes.
More troops have been deployed in the province. The army said the 24 hours leading up to Wednesday night had brought more unrest in Belfast than in the entire past year.
Leading Protestant figures have called for calm amid warnings by church leaders that deaths could occur soon.
As part of its traditional summer "marching season," the Protestant Orange Order wants to march through a Catholic area in the towns of Drumcree and Portadown this Sunday. It is an annual event marking centuries-old military victories over Catholics that has triggered serious tensions in recent years.
The ban on the parade prompted Orange Order leaders to call for street protests. They in turn saw masked loyalist paramilitaries exchange fire with British police in Drumcree on Tuesday night.
Adding to the tensions, a notorious loyalist terrorist freed under the province's Good Friday peace agreement was seen earlier this week at the site of the Drumcree protests in the company of other known members of illegal Protestant paramilitary groups.
Ulster Freedom Fighters' commander Johnny Adair was jailed for 16 years in 1995 for "directing terrorism." Despite police advice that he was too dangerous to be let loose, he was freed early last year as part of the political bargaining aimed at ending the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
Spotted early this week at the Drumcree protests, Adair said there was nothing in his release agreement that prevented him from attending the demonstrations. He claimed to have no knowledge of the gunmen who opened fire on British police, believed to be members of another banned loyalist group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
Britain's opposition Conservative Party called on the government to act against both the UFF and LVF.
The party's spokesman on Northern Ireland, Andrew MacKay, said Adair's presence in Drumcree and his association with the loyalist paramilitary activities was "intolerable."
"Such naked displays of paramilitarism are clearly incompatible with a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Johnny Adair and any other released prisoners who are associated with these activities should be put back in prison where they belong."
MacKay said the Conservatives hoped the government was not sacrificing the rule of law "just for the sake of political expediency."
The release of convicted terrorists, both pro-British loyalists and pro-Irish republicans, was one of the most sensitive concessions contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
The peace deal, which provides for a Catholic-Protestant power sharing provincial government, was held up earlier this year because of a dispute over weapons still in the possession of the paramilitary groups.
The impasse was broken after the main republican militia, the Irish Republican Army, undertook to put its guns and bombs "beyond use" and allow independent inspectors to monitor arms dumps. That monitoring process is now underway.
Hopes for peace have been set back by this week's violence. It has not been restricted to Protestant areas. Catholic youths near Belfast also have been involved in street clashes with security forces.
Although the IRA was linked to most of the terrorist violence in Northern Ireland over the past three decades, during the early 1990s, loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for more deaths than the IRA.