School-children as young as five had to get police protection as they arrived at three Catholic schools in north Belfast this week.
The action was required following a threat of “military action” against the children by loyalist paramilitaries.
The security operation began on Monday, three days after the ‘Red Hand Defenders’ contacted journalists to say it would target the three schools.
The schools at the centre of the threats are two primary level and one secondary, but do not wish to be identified.
The Red Hand Defenders formed in 1998 and was used as a cover for various loyalist groups. It has not been heard of in recent years but the caller said it had “reactivated” in “response to attacks on the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community in recent months”.
In a statement, the group said parents, pupils and staff were “no longer welcome at the three schools”.
“Those three schools are in Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas and as our parades and people are not welcome in nationalist areas, therefore [anything] to do with those schools will now be considered as legitimate targets,” the group said.
The murder gang - which admitted responsibility for the assassination of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in a 1999 car bomb attack at her Lurgan home - added that if the message was “not taken on board”, then “trouble” and “military action” would commence.
Tensions over the marching season have not abated in north Belfast where a loyalist camp of ‘human rights activists’ makes nightly attempts to force its way into the nationalist Ardoyne community.
The loyalists have vowed to remain at the interface until they are permitted to hold a sectarian parade along a route denied to them earlier this summer.
And around 10,000 loyalists are expected to descend on Belfast city centre next week. A group calling itself ‘Loyal Peaceful Protesters’ plan to march through the city and up to police lines at the Ardoyne interface in an act of intimidation and defiance against Ardoyne residents who oppose their parade.
With the situation appearing to be escalating, concerned parents were fearful about sending their children to school. Fr Gary Donegan, from Holy Cross Church at Ardoyne, urged people in the area to remain “calm”.
Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly called for the immediate withdrawal of the threat and urged unionist and loyalist leaders to join the chorus of condemnation.
“This is a disgraceful and sinister statement to come from any organisation or individual against school children, their parents and teachers,” he said.
“Even the threat of this cannot be tolerated by society.”
SDLP assembly member Alban Maginness described the threats as “despicable”.
“It’s time that the DUP and unionist leaders tackled the problem of sectarianism in a big, big way so that some leadership is given by unionist politicians to counter these things happening,” he said.
However, the response from unionist politicians was muted. And on Wednesday, children, some as young as five, were led away from their classrooms yesterday after a partially exploded pipe bomb was discovered just metres from their school in Twinbrook, west Belfast.
Sinn Fein councillor Stephen Magennis said the children were taken from the school in “very tight” lines towards their parents.
“When they seen their parents, they were relieved and the parents were obviously very, very worried and some visibly upset,” he said.
“The parents were very, very angry that the school and the community were badly treated in this way.”
Mr Magennis described what had happened as “totally reckless”, adding that there was “no support whatsoever for this kind of behaviour”.
“There was disregard for the lives of schoolchildren and parents,” he said.
“It was only metres from the local nursery.”
Security alerts also took place in a number of other areas this week.
Roads were sealed off as a device was dealth with the County Antrim town of Ballyclare.
British Army bomb disposal operations also took place outside the MI5 headquarters of Palace Barracks in County Down, as well as in Strabane, County Tyrone and in South Armagh.