Page last updated at 12:36 GMT, Sunday, 2 November 2008

Thousands attend Belfast parade

Soliders with Irish Wolfhound mascots
Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment with Irish Wolfhound mascots

A homecoming parade for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has taken place in Belfast city centre.

Sinn Féin protesters took part in a demonstration against the British Army's role in the Troubles.

Police stopped a separate dissident republican counter parade from marching into the centre of Belfast at the bottom of the Falls Road.

After a number of speeches, the protesters made their way back to Divis Tower.

Earlier, several thousand people walked down the Shankill Road with banners welcoming the soldiers.

DUP delegation
DUP delegation, including NI First Minister Peter Robinson, arrive at parade

Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly, speaking to protestors at Dunville Park in west Belfast, said the parade was a "provocative act which had split the city".

His party changed the route of its protest and told troublemakers to stay away.

Also last week, the RAF cancelled a planned fly-past and and it was agreed soldiers at the parade would be unarmed.

Despite the concessions made on both sides, there are still fears that some loyalists and republicans could infiltrate the peaceful protesters.

Sinn Féin said it was inappropriate to mark the homecoming because British troops were responsible for the deaths of Catholic civilians during the Troubles.

But unionists said the Army had every right to walk the streets of Belfast. They said that the changes made to the parade meant troops in Northern Ireland would receive a different welcome home than soldiers elsewhere in the UK.

Protestors
Sinn Féin protest on way to city centre

BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson said the event was being seen as a test for the new peaceful era in Belfast.

Politicians on all sides have appealed for demonstrators to be calm and dignified, he added.


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