updated 7/13/2009 3:18:32 PM ET 2009-07-13T19:18:32

Militant Catholics hurled gasoline bombs, fireworks and other makeshift weapons at Northern Ireland police Monday in a failed effort to prevent a Protestant parade from passing through the bitterly divided north side of Belfast.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed the crowd in the hard-line Catholic district of Ardoyne throw about a half-dozen Molotov cocktails at riot police. At one point, masked youths on store rooftops overlooking the road directed a deluge of objects on police lines.

More than 100 officers in riot gear charged into crowds with shields and clubs. Three water cannons blasted rioters into side streets, clearing the way for the parade by about 1,000 Protestants from the Orange Order brotherhood.

Several rioters and at least one officer have been injured.

The parades — featuring so-called "kick the pope" bands of fife and drum playing a mixture of Gospel and sectarian tunes — are loathed by the Irish Catholic minority, which views the tradition as insulting and intimidating.

Protestant parades and Catholic hostility to them inspired Northern Ireland's descent into bloodshed from the late 1960s to mid-1990s, when paramilitary cease-fires took root after more than 3,600 killings.

Though the Orangemen are trying to modernize their image as less anti-Catholic, this year's parades in 18 cities and towns have nevertheless brought a surge in sectarian passions over the past week, with extremists on both sides vandalizing the other's most vulnerable homes, churches and community halls.

Several of Monday's parades include circus-style entertainers and historically-themed floats. Orangemen have assigned officials to welcome tourists on parade routes, and central Belfast shopping centers are opening for the first time.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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