5 Jan 2013

Shots ‘fired at police’ after Belfast flag protest

A man is arrested on suspicion of attempted murder as police investigate reports of gunfire and use water cannons against protesters throwing missiles and fireworks, after a flag rally in Belfast.

Around 100 loyalists were involved in the violence in east Belfast, after a tense but peaceful protest of under 1,000 people in front of Belfast City Hall.

Reports of gunfire aimed at police lines are being investigated and a 38-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.

Police in riot gear used water canon and said they were under attack from around 100 protesters throwing missiles, fireworks and bricks on the Lower Newtownards Road. Two other men were arrested in relation to the disturbances.

The violence follows a night of rioting in the east of city, during which nine police officers were injured. Eighteen people were arrested following the disorder, in which 30 petrol bombs were thrown. On Thursday, ten police officers were injured during a demonstration in east Belfast.

The rally was the latest in a string of protests over the decision to reduce the number of days that the British flag is flown at the city hall. Politicians within the Alliance Party have also received death threats.

Trouble flares in the east

The trouble first broke out on Saturday afternoon near the nationalist Short Strand area, as protesters made their way to the Newtownards Road after the City Hall protest, Amanda Poole, a journalist who was at the scene, told Channel 4 News.

“Protesters were making their way to the east of the city amid a heavy police escort,” she said. “The trouble first flared at the Short Strand interface area, with bottles, stones and debris being thrown between residents and protesters.

“After that, violence erupted when the police were moving loyalist protesters further up the Newtownards Road. Bricks, bottles and masonry were thrown at the officers in full riot gear and then scuffles broke out between protesters and the police.”

The PSNI said they will be seeking further arrests in the coming days in relation to the disorder and have appealed for witnesses.

The protest at Belfast City Hall, organised on social networking sites, passed off peacefully and was manned by police in full riot gear and police dogs.

Recent unrest

Willie Frazer, a victims campaigner who has come forward as one of the spokespeople for the flag protesters, made a speech to crowd and urged them to remain peaceful, Ms Poole told Channel 4 News. He said on Friday that Ulster loyalists plan to travel to Dublin next weekend to protest against the decision to restrist the flying of the union flag.

Around 40 police officers have been injured so far in disturbances over the union flag at the city hall since 10 December.

Speaking on Friday, First Minister Peter Robinson said violence against the police was a “disgrace” and those behind days of unrest were playing into the hands of dissident republicans: “Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse and are playing into the hands of those dissident groups who would seek to exploit every opportunity to further their terror aims.”

On Friday night, 30 petrol bombs along with fireworks, ball bearings and masonry, were hurled at police officers in a sustained attack in east Belfast. Up to 300 people were involved in the disturbances.

None of the police injuries sustained during the attacks are life threatening, however one female officer required medical treatment on Friday night.