The death of a Protestant teenager during rioting in north Belfast was a senseless waste of life, Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble said tonight.
Glen Branagh, 16, died when a blast bomb exploded in his hand as he was about to throw it on Sunday.
Why he was throwing it was at the heart of a major dispute tonight.
Police said he appeared, masked, through the loyalist crowds and started to throw the ‘‘fizzing object’’ towards their lines when it exploded, fatally injuring him.
But loyalists hailed the teenager a hero, claiming he was trying to hurl away a device which had been thrown at them by Republicans.
Police dismissed the claim, saying nationalist demonstrators had been moved by them too far away for this to have been responsible.
Whatever the reason for the death of the teenager, who would have celebrated his 17th birthday on Friday, Mr Trimble said: ‘‘One is shocked and saddened by the senseless waste of yet another life and we hope that the situation can be brought under control before more lives are lost.’’
During his first question time in the Stormont Assembly since being re-elected as Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr Trimble called on people to co-operate with the police to ensure that the deteriorating security situation in the area is reversed.
Glen Branagh lived at Mountcollyer Avenue, in the Duncairn Gardens area, close to the streets which have seen some of the worst sectarian disturbances for years.
The teenager died hours before police mounted their largest security operation to escort Catholic children to the Holy Cross Primary School in north Belfast’s Ardoyne in a bid to normalise their trip to class.
Police said winter weather conditions meant it was wrong to gather the children together with their parents and escort them past loyalist demonstrators in a group.
‘‘We can’t have young children of four, five and six, standing in the freezing cold. It’s just not on.
‘‘It’s just not acceptable in any civilised society and it’s time to move this on,’’ said Police Service Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast Alan McQuillan.
Under the new scheme, 400 officers - one-eighth of those available for the entire Greater Belfast area - were on duty to enable the children to be taken to school individually as they arrived.
But the normalisation came at a cost. Mr McQuillan said the policing operation since the start of term in September had been £50,000 a day - some £2.5 million pounds.
The new operation would cost £100,000 a day, he said.
There was no trouble as the children were taken to and from school but both sides in the dispute criticised the changed police tactics.
Catholic parents said they felt exposed as they made their way to school in small groups and loyalist protesters said the increased police presence meant their own goodwill gesture of scaling down the protest last week had been ignored.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s education spokesman tonight called on the Stormont Assembly Education Committee to walk to school with the Holy Cross pupils.
Gerry McHugh said cross-community pressure was beginning to bear fruit in forcing the loyalist protesters of Glenbryn to reassess their protest.
‘‘It would send a powerful message to our society if a cross party group such as the Assembly Education Committee were to back the fundamental human right to education of these schoolchildren,’’ said Mr McHugh.
He added: ‘‘As a committee we should be seen to be taking up this challenge by offering to walk to school with the schoolchildren and by offering to meet with the Glenbryn protesters.’’