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IRA Firebombs Hit 11 Belfast-Area Stores : Ulster: Damage is in the millions of dollars. Attacks, loyalist warning are new blows to latest Anglo-Irish peace bid.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eleven stores in the Greater Belfast area were hit Saturday in a firebomb blitz that caused millions of dollars in damage. The Irish Republican Army telephoned news media to claim responsibility for the attacks.

The series of fires in and around Belfast broke out minutes into the New Year. At the height of the blazes, firefighters from five nearby towns were called on to help. There were no injuries.

Incendiary devices ignited fires in food, clothing and appliance stores, as well as warehouse outlets and Belfast’s Linenhall Library, authorities said. Up to 200 workers could lose their jobs because of the damage, they estimated.

The attacks were preceded by a warning from the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a Protestant paramilitary group. It asserted its right to “respond militarily” in 1994.

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The wave of bombings and the announcement by the Protestant group represented new blows to the peace hopes for the troubled province that were raised by the Downing Street Declaration signed Dec. 15 by British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds.

That declaration invited all the parties in the conflict over Northern Ireland’s union with the United Kingdom to lay down their arms and negotiate a cease-fire, to be followed by a vote in which residents of the province could express their preferences about its political status. It specifically raised the possibility of reuniting the province with the rest of Ireland if voters wished it.

The Protestant paramilitary group, which opposes any talk of linking the province to the Republic of Ireland, criticized the declaration in its statement.

“It is widely agreed that the declaration, despite its grand claims regarding consent freely given, is part of a wider agenda and once again ignores the reality that the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom was substantially changed with the imposition of the Anglo-Irish diktat .”

The statement accused the British government of abdicating its responsibilities to protect Northern Ireland and its citizens.

Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, declared, “It was inevitable that the IRA would continue the violence. In the loyalist community, people have come to the same conclusion as the loyalist paramilitary organization, namely that the Downing Street Declaration was an attempt to con people in Northern Ireland, particularly in the unionist community, that there was a way to end the cycle of violence by paying a price to terrorists.

“People are now seeing that terrorists will always ask for more and that all the concessions made to the IRA have been made to no avail.”

Belfast’s mayor, Reg Empey, described the incendiary blitz as a “cynical exercise on behalf of the IRA because they know that people, when it comes to the New Year, are always looking forward to something better than they have just experienced.”

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