By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - The flame for the London Olympics arrived in Northern Ireland on Saturday in a celebration that would have seemed impossible a generation earlier amid a bloody war between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants.
Three decades of sectarian violence cost 3,600 lives before a 1998 peace deal largely ended fighting in the British-controlled province.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth last week announced a visit to Northern Ireland in advance for the first time since the 1960s - previous visits were unannounced for security reasons - and the flame's arrival marked another step in attempts to unite the communities.
"The next few days are Northern Ireland's moment to shine. The torch will shine a light on many of our most scenic and iconic landmarks," Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson told reporters after the flame touched down in Belfast airport ahead of the Games which start on July 27.
Mary Peters, a 1972 Olympic gold medal winning athlete and now the Queen's Lord Lieutenant for Belfast, carried the flame through the airport which was decked out in Olympic flags and banners for the occasion.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were on hand to welcome the flame alongside the cheering crowds.
On Sunday the flame - on a five-day visit to Northern Ireland - will be carried to the Titanic Building, recently opened in Belfast's docklands to commemorate the famous liner which was built in the city and sank 100 years ago.
It will then make its way through more than 60 towns and villages across Northern Ireland, carried by about 600 local people aged between 12 to 93.
On Wednesday it will cross the border on its way to Dublin, in a further sign of Anglo-Irish goodwill, before being taken to Scotland on Thursday to complete its 70-day relay around the United Kingdom and Ireland.
However despite the relative normality of life in the province now, police expressed concerns that militant Irish nationalists still waging a sporadic campaign of violence against Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom may seek to target the Olympic celebrations.
Dissident Irish nationalists have killed two police officers and two soldiers in the past three years.
Underlining the threat still posed to security forces, police said an explosive device had been thrown at some of its members in the city of Londonderry on Saturday.
"There is always that small group of people intent to cause disruption and harm to the community. The threat remains severe and police officers remain the principal target," Northern Ireland's Assistant Police Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said.
"The additional police presence during this time will provide a greater opportunity for those people intent on attacking us and we will have to protect ourselves and the community."
(Editing by Padraic Halpin and Pravin Char)