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Riots mar Hillary Clinton's Belfast return

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle in Belfast
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle in Belfast

By David Brunnstrom and Ian Graham

BELFAST (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday condemned a wave of street violence during a trip in Northern Ireland, saying it showed the peace process she has long supported in the British province was not yet complete.

Clinton arrived in Northern Ireland, following Dublin talks on Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a week that has seen three riots and the arrest of four suspected militant nationalists after the discovery of a bomb in a car.

"There can be no place in Northern Ireland for any violence, any of the remnants of the past need to be quickly, unequivocally condemned," Clinton told a news conference she held with pro-British First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, former Irish Republican Army leader Martin McGuinness.

She said violence was from "a small minority of people who try to stir up passions or emotions. It is unacceptable and must be repudiated by everyone".

Clinton travelled to Northern Ireland several times in the mid-1990s while her husband helped broker the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, his hands-on approach widely recognized as crucial at moments when the agreement looked like crumbling.

At least 3,600 people were killed during the previous three decades as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant Loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The 1998 peace has mostly held, although militant nationalists have stepped up attacks in recent years and community relations remain fragile with riots erupting every few months at flash points in the city.

NIGHT OF VIOLENCE

The latest riot erupted on Thursday night when a policeman was injured after protesters hurled bricks and bottles to vent their anger against nationalist councilors who voted to remove the British flag atop Belfast City Hall after 100 years.

Smaller protests took place across the province on Friday.

Police on Friday said four men were arrested after a home-made armor-piercing rocket, of a type often used in Iraq and Afghanistan, was recovered from a car in a Republican area of Londonderry overnight.

A member of the British parliament for the non-sectarian centrist Alliance party, Naomi Long, fled her house in Belfast overnight after receiving a death threat over her party's support of the removal of the flag from City Hall.

"Peace does need sacrifice, compromise and vigilance day after day. We have seen this week that the work is not yet complete," said Clinton, on one of her last trips as secretary of state.

Last month, militant nationalists shot dead a prison officer in just the fifth fatal attack on a member of the security establishment since 1998. Signs at the airport where Clinton landed on Friday said "Threat Level 'Severe'".

As first lady, Clinton supported pro-peace women's groups in Northern Ireland and visited people wounded in the 1998 Omagh bombing, the deadliest attack in three decades of violence commonly known as the "Troubles".

On Friday she met some women she has remained friends from those groups as well as Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams and former Democratic Unionist Leader Ian Paisley, two bitter rivals who symbolized the Troubles for many.

PRESIDENTIAL BOON

The visit was a reminder of the huge popularity of the Clintons among Catholics in Ireland, an appeal one columnist has described as "Kennedy-esque".

Her husband's work in the province helped win over the Irish-American vote during his 1996 re-election campaign and the family name could prove a potential asset in attracting the Irish-American vote if Hillary decided to run for the U.S. presidency in 2016.

"There are no truer friends to this island, to this peace process or even our prosperity," McGuinness said of the Clintons.

Clinton on Thursday told journalists in Dublin she was "too focused on what I'm doing" to think about a run for the presidency in 2016 and declined to comment on U.S. newspaper reports her husband may be appointed as Washington's next ambassador to the Republic of Ireland.

During her visit, she emphasized the need to revitalize the economy in Northern Ireland, where house prices have fallen by over 50 percent since 2007.

The troubles led to decades of under-investment and the province remains heavily dependent on a grant from London. U.S. investment in the province is a tiny fraction of that in the Republic of Ireland.

"Both her and her husband, they have been there for us down the years," said David Adair, 59, who was walking near the province's parliament when Clinton met local leaders.

"But given the state our economy is in right now it would be nice if she could go home and rustle up a few thousand more jobs."

(Writing by Conor Humphries; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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