Belfast teenagers using Facebook to plan riots that have injured more than 60 police officers over three nights

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Teenagers charged with involvement in recent sectarian rioting in Belfast have been keeping in touch through Facebook, a court in the city was told today.

The revelation came as political leaders held emergency meetings in an attempt to defuse tensions which have led to injuries to more than 60 police officers in three nights of rioting in the north of the city.

Police have said they have no direct evidence of the involvement of loyalist paramilitary groups in disturbances, although they knew members of such organisations had been involved in rioting.

Unionist first minister Peter Robinson and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness are leading attempts to find compromise arrangements in advance of a major loyalist parade to be held in the area on September 29th.

A Belfast youth court today heard that teenagers had arranged to take part in disturbances through Facebook. A lawyer for a 15-year-old charged with riotous assembly said he had used the social networking site to learn that rioting was due to take place at Carlisle Circus, the focal point of disturbances.

The lawyer said: “These things go on Facebook, they all talk to each other, they get excited and they end up down at a place they definitely shouldn't be.”

Police opposed bail for two teenagers on the grounds that the ongoing disorder was putting at risk the lives of officers, the public and the rioters themselves.

But District Judge George Conner granted bail, banning the teenagers from using social networking media and ordering them not to go within 500 metres of Carlisle Circus.

He told them: “Tempted as we are to make an example of you so that can go out on Facebook, we are going to give you a chance. If you receive a message from any of your friends or anybody you don't know saying there's rioting going on you ignore it.”

Efforts to calm the situation took place against a background of continuing strong condemnation of the disorder from senior Protestant church figures. A spokesman for the Methodist church was unusually critical of Mr Robinson, saying it was unacceptable for him to have kept silent recently.

He added: “The people of Northern Ireland expect leadership from their government to help alleviate tensions and bring peace back to our streets,” adding that Mr Robinson had done little to instil community confidence.

Mr Robinson said tensions were very high but that his role “is to ensure that we don't add to those difficulties by things that are said and done.” He said if less was said “we might be in a much better position to try and resolve these issues,” and that difficulties would only be resolved on the basis of mutual respect.

Martin McGuinness described the recent violence as “deplorable, disgraceful and shameful.” Accusing the Orange Order of a lack of leadership, he added: “This is a time for leadership, a time for people to stand together against violence.”