Further clashes occur in Belfast

 

Members of the PSNI faced fresh attacks tonight after trouble ignited in Belfast.

Bricks and bottles were thrown between nationalists and unionists in east Belfast as a heavy security presence tried to quell serious unrest.

Several hundred people have gathered near interfaces close to the Newtownards Road.

Earlier today, the PSNI claimed loyalist paramilitaries who are supposed to be on a ceasefire organised major rioting and opened fire on police in Belfast last night.

Around 500 people were involved in violence in the east of the city last night, which is being described as some of the most serious seen in Northern Ireland for years.

Police said six shots were fired from the republican Short Strand area, while loyalists also opened fire. Masked Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members were blamed for starting the violence by attacking homes in the Catholic enclave.

Two men on the loyalist side of the divide suffered gunshot wounds to the leg, officers confirmed. But bullet marks on police vehicles were blamed on the UVF and are being treated as the attempted murder of officers.

Petrol bombs, bricks and other missiles were hurled during the rioting, which comes ahead of the most tense period of the loyalist marching season.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness condemned the riot, as well as a separate bomb attack aimed at police in west Belfast. "At this time when many are working hard to build a better and brighter future for all in Northern Ireland, it is disappointing and deeply concerning to see this level of violence return to our streets,” Mr Robinson said.

Mr McGuinness blamed the violence on a “small minority of individuals” who are determined to destabilise communities. “They will not be allowed to drag us back to the past,” he said. “I call on all those involved to take a step back and to remain calm. I support the efforts of community leaders on all sides who have been working on
the ground to restore calm in east Belfast.”

Police said the UVF orchestrated the violence. “We believe at this point that members of the east Belfast UVF were involved," said Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum. “It would be a line of investigation to establish whether that was a co-ordinated and organised ‘organisational’ position (by the UVF central leadership)."

The location of the riot is an inner city area, not far from the centre of Belfast, and has been a long-standing flashpoint. The Short Strand is a small Catholic community in the predominantly Protestant east Belfast area.

Mr McCrum denied police had failed to react quickly enough to the violence, or to contain the loyalist crowd. “We had additional resources in the Short Strand last night, but no one could have anticipated the scale of the disorder that took place. No one could have anticipated that hundreds of people would be on the street and that petrol bombs, blast bombs, sticks and bottles would be thrown over four to five hours.”

Asked about the shots fired by republicans, he said there was no indication of Provisional IRA involvement. “There is nothing to suggest at this point that those shots were fired by Provisional members,” he said.

Separately, an explosive device was thrown at a police vehicle in West Belfast in the early hours of the morning. Nobody was hurt in the incident near the Kennedy Centre in Andersonstown. Police were responding to reports of a stolen vehicle when they came under attack. The area was closed off for a number of hours and bomb disposal experts attended the scene.

Northern Ireland Policing Board Chair Brian Rea condemned the attack on police officers. "It is extremely fortunate that officers were not injured in this attack but this device had the potential to kill which was the obvious intent . These officers were out serving the community and we ask the community to give all the support they can to policing at this time."

Justice Minister David Ford said the violence was a disgrace and showed Northern Ireland in a negative light, following two days of positive publicity around the US Open win by Co Down golfer Rory McIlroy. “Northern Ireland has occupied the headlines for our sporting excellence but that positive image, bringing with it the prospects of continuing to improve our reputation internationally, is today replaced with one of rioting,” he said.

The UVF is one of the biggest loyalist groups and despite having observed a ceasefire and having decommissioned its weapons, it was blamed for a murder last year.

The Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) found that the UVF’s leadership sanctioned what was branded the “public execution” of loyalist Bobby Moffett, who was shot dead in front of shoppers on Belfast’s Shankill Road. But it stopped short of recommending government sanction of the UVF. The recent appearance of UVF murals in east Belfast depicting masked and armed men was seen as a bid by the group to stamp its mark.