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President Clinton on Thursday called upon the people of Northern Ireland to seize the fragile hope of peace before it fades away.

In a speech to business and political leaders in Belfast, Clinton described the opportunity for peace as a fleeting moment. ``Do not let it slip away,' he said. ``It will not come again in our lifetime.'Sandwiched between the perplexing economic crisis in Russia and an uncertain return home, the trip to Ireland must seem a tonic to the besieged president. Clinton spent his first of three days here revisiting the city where his presidency may have reached its highest point three years ago.

He began the day with the warmly received speech before a friendly Belfast crowd and ended it shaking hands at a festive gathering in the heart of a small town.

It was also a day touched by sobering realities. The biggest threat to the still-fragile peace process came last month in the small town of Omagh, where members of a splinter group known as the Real IRA detonated a 500-pound car bomb in the busy market center, killing 28 and wounding more than 200.

Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton visited Omagh in the afternoon and spoke to families of the victims. People stood six deep along the route of the presidential party, and some children waived American flags. The Clintons visited the bomb crater on Market Street, where they laid a wreath and presented a plaque to the bombing victims.

George Maxwell, his daughter on his shoulders, stood in the crowd and marveled at the moment. ``He's here because 28 people were butchered, two baby girls, a mother heavily pregnant with twins, children - so many children,' Maxwell said. ``It's an amazing moment, wrapped up in all this unspeakable horror. You're pleased he's here. You wish he'd no reason to come.'

At a recreation hall gymnasium that served as a makeshift crisis center immediately after the bombing, Clinton expressed sympathy to about 500 relatives of victims. He spoke privately to a 14-year-old girl who was blinded in the attack and her mother, a radiologist who was on duty the day of the blast.

``To all of you, we thank you for standing up in the face of such a soul-searing loss and restating your determination to walk the road of peace,' he said. He also suggested that the bombing, rather than undermining the peace process, actually bolstered it. ``By killing Catholics and Protestants, young and old, men, women and children, even those about to be born, people from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and abroad, it galvanized, strengthened and humanized the impulse to peace,' he said.

In Belfast, Clinton was praised for his role in laying the foundation for peace. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that no other American president has contributed so much to securing peace for the troubled island.

``There is no president of the United States of America that has done more for peace than you,' Blair said. ``The people of Northern Ireland owe you a debt, a deep debt of gratitude. And if this process ends where we want it to end, in lasting peace in Northern Ireland, then when the history of that peace is written, your place in it will be assured.'

Clinton spoke in the gleaming new Waterfront Hall, which has been constructed on what in the president's 1995 visit was a derelict district of the city by the River Lagan. The hall is regarded as a symbol for the renaissance of Northern Ireland after 30 years of sectarian conflict.

While Clinton was greeted warmly at each stop, nothing matched the electricity in 1995 when tens of thousands filled Donegal Place in front of Belfast City Hall to watch Clinton light the city's Christmas tree.

The nearest thing came in Armagh, the spiritual heart of Ireland, where he seemed to draw energy from the enthusiastic crowd of 20,000 gathered on a cricket field to hear him speak.

Sounding almost like a candidate on the stump, Clinton recited the world's intractable conflicts - those in the Middle East, Kosovo and Africa - and said they could all learn from the Irish.

``Do not tell me it has to be this way,' he said. ``Look at Northern Ireland.'


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