Drumcree sparks riots across Ulster

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Rioting and arson broke out across Northern Ireland last night. Loyalist marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were locked in angry standoffs punctuated by police charges and baton rounds. In north Belfast cars were hijacked and burned. Police were bombed in the Newington area; there was rioting and a house was petrol bombed in Clifton Park Avenue. Cars were burnt in York Road.

At one point yesterday evening demonstrators in the Sandy Row area of Belfast targeted press photographers and television cameramen, pelting them with bottles and bricks. There was a 40 minute stand-off with demonstrators refusing to move until a marcher who had been arrested earlier was released. A police helicopters circled overhead as Orange leaders and police held talks against a backdrop of abuse from a crowd held back by police barriers. The marchers eventually moved on through the city centre.

Police said there were reports of shots being fired in north Belfast but there were no reports of casualties. Violence erupted in Lisburn, Co Antrim, when police were petrol bombed by rioters and fought back with plastic bullets. In Ligoniel a shirt factory was set on fire.

In Drumcree near Portadown, following three days of tension since the RUC stopped loyalists from marching through a Catholic area, demonstrators tried to burst through security barriers. At one point a handful of protesters got past RUC barricades around fields beside the church at the scene of the standoff. The intruders were quickly caught by police but dozens more RUC vehicles sped to the scene and officers with riot shields began lining the fields nearby.

At one stage police fired plastic baton rounds to force back the crowd and soldiers were called in to back up the RUC.

The number of Orangemen multiplied dramatically as reinforcements began arriving from neighbouring counties. Orange Order leaders appealed for calm and after about 30 minutes the area became calmer but remained tense.

In north Belfast up to 500 nationalists staged a protest march to the mainly Protestant Old Park area where Catholics were forced to flee their homes on Monday night because of loyalist intimidation.

A march organised by Sinn Fein from the Ardoyne area was shadowed by a heavy force of soldiers in riot gear. Having made their protest the march broke up and returned home without incident.

Outside Belfast there was trouble in Ballymena and Cullybackey, Co Antrim, where police were stoned.

In Londonderry the two bridges linking the divided sides of the city across the River Foyle were sealed off by loyalists.

As tension remained high across the province last night, many roads in Belfast were closed and the university town of Coleraine, Co Londonderry, was closed off.

The RUC reported roads blocked around towns and villages across Co Armagh and also in Counties Down, Antrim, Londonderry and Tyrone.

The police are bracing themselves for further conflict today. In Drumcree, Orange Order leaders hope that thousands more supporters will arrive to back the move to march down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road.