5 Northern Ireland politicians sent bullets in mail as protests over UK flag policy persist

Five Northern Ireland politicians received letters containing bullets Wednesday as an extremist Protestant campaign of death threats and illegal street protests escalated over Belfast City Council's decision to stop flying the British flag year-round.

Hours later, an off-duty police officer narrowly avoided being shot when confronted by a gunman outside his home in the mainly Protestant town of Bangor. No group claimed responsibility. The Police Service of Northern Ireland said the officer was targeted by gunshots but did not return fire during the failed ambush.

About 40 police have been injured during the past three weeks' street clashes with Protestant extremists, who have issued threats against both police and politicians. Typically, however, gun attacks on British security forces are committed by Irish Republican Army splinter groups from the Irish Catholic side of the community. Last month, an IRA faction ambushed and killed a prison guard as he drove to work.

The five letters containing live bullets were intercepted by security screening staff at Stormont Parliamentary Building in east Belfast, the center of Northern Ireland's 5 ½-year-old unity government.

Three officials from the cross-community Alliance Party were targets of the threats: Party leader and Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford; deputy leader Naomi Long; and Gerardine Mulvenna, mayor of an overwhelmingly Protestant port town, Larne. Both Long and Mulvenna already have had to flee their homes because of death threats.

Alliance has borne the brunt of Protestant anger after its Belfast councilors cast the deciding votes Dec. 3 restricting the U.K. flag's display to just 18 official days each year at Belfast City Hall. Such issues of symbolism frequently inflame sectarian passions in Northern Ireland, where Protestants mainly want to stay in the United Kingdom and Catholics want to unite with the Republic of Ireland.

In the Belfast vote, Catholic politicians, who outnumber Protestants on the council, wanted to remove the British flag entirely, but Alliance persuaded the Catholics to back a compromise motion that keeps the flag flying on holidays and days associated with the British royal family. An angry Protestant mob stormed into the city council grounds immediately following the vote, and a social media-driven grassroots campaign of street blockades has followed.

Two lawmakers from Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that represents most of the Catholic minority, also were targeted with bullets: Gerry Kelly and Alex Maskey.

Kelly was once a senior member of the Provisional IRA, the dominant IRA faction that renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. Protestants agreed two years later to form a coalition with Sinn Fein, fulfilling the key power-sharing aim of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

Kelly said the letter threats were "obviously connected to the current protests against the democratic decision taken at Belfast City Council." He accused politicians in both of Northern Ireland's main Protestant-backed parties, the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists, of provoking the protesters.

The leaders of all Northern Ireland parties planned to meet Thursday at Stormont to discuss possible solutions to the flag-flying dispute.