Police fired plastic bullets into a crowd of Protestant demonstrators last night after a riot broke out when an Apprentice Boys' march was banned from a predominantly Catholic area of Belfast.
At least three RUC officers and two civilians were injured when 300 protesters pelted the police with petrol bombs at the end of a stand-off that lasted for more than eight hours.
After enduring a hail of missiles, police were given the order to draw their batons and disperse rioters from the Lower Ormeau district, the scene last year of sporadic violence during the Protestant marching season.
As darkness fell, baton-wielding officers made a second charge, breaking up a sit-down protest and dispersing the crowd. However, tension in the area remained high. The trouble started when the RUC refused to allow marchers to pass through the Catholic area because of the fear of violence. Last year, a number of people were injured during a three-day impasse at Portadown, where Catholic residents asked police to prevent an Orange march.
Yesterday's violence flared after police and marchers appeared to havereached a compromise. However, after the arrival of another marching band and scores of loyalist protesters, many of whom seemed drunk, a riot looked inevitable.
Bottles, glasses and, eventually, petrol bombs, rained down on police, forcing them to take cover behind a cordon of reinforced Land Rovers blocking the marchers' route across the Ormeau Bridge over the River Lagan. Finally, the order was given to disperse the crowd, leading to pitched battles in side streets along the route of the proposed march.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, condemned the attacks on the police as "disgraceful".
The latest trouble came as Sinn Fein announced that it would take part in next month's Northern Ireland election, if the SDLP decided to contest them, a move which seems increasingly likely.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said nationalists still feared that the elected body would be "an embryonic Stormont". But he seemed resigned to accepting that Sinn Fein would have to take part.
"We actually believe that the best way forward for the nationalist community is for the nationalist political representatives not to participate in the election, or the elected body," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"But the SDLP is a party in its own right and if they decide to contest the elections, then I'm certain that Sinn Fein will do likewise."
Mr McGuinness insisted Sinn Fein had a right to take part in talks, whatever the IRA did, but said his party was willing to play its part in helping to bring about a fresh ceasefire.
"We can only realistically do that if we have a package we can put to the IRA, which will give absolute assurances and guarantees that real and meaningful peace negotiations, without pre-conditions and within the time frame, will take place," he said.
The chairman of the SDLP, Jonathan Stevenson, said his party wanted to see the legislation relating to the elections before deciding whether to take part. "The only pressure upon us . . . is to get to all-party talks and to find a formula which will turn off the violence for good," he said.Reuse content