A second bout of violence broke out on the streets of Belfast yesterday with police clashing with loyalists and republicans as petrol bombs and other missiles were thrown for a second night.
Some 200 loyalists wearing balaclava helmets appeared in the late evening and attacked the Catholic Short Strand enclave in east Belfast with fireworks, bricks and stones despite a heavy police presence. A photographer was shot in the leg during the outbreak of violence, and water cannons were moved into the area.
The disturbances which broke out on Monday night have been described as the worst riots in the city for years, with both loyalists and republicans firing shots during hours of disturbances. Police said scores of masked loyalists went on the rampage at the traditional flashpoint.
While there were no serious injuries during the clashes, a police vehicle was struck by loyalist bullets. Police blamed the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force for starting the trouble, in which two Protestant youths were wounded in the legs.
Although there had been some indications of local tensions, the scale of the disturbances took almost everyone in Belfast by surprise. Apart from sporadic violence from dissident republicans, the city has been relatively trouble-free for months. The outbreak of disorder means police will take extra precautions during the coming loyalist marching season.
During the disturbances, petrol bombs, smoke bombs, paint bombs, fireworks, bricks and other missiles were thrown. Police Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum described the incident as originating with loyalists.
"It started when a group of young men made their way into the area of the Short Strand and did, unquestionably, attack homes in that community," he said. "That precipitated a response from the community in the Short Strand and then we were left with two communities who, for the next four hours, were seeking to involve themselves in conflict. We had hundreds of people who actually were hell bent on disorder."
Ch Supt McCrum said loyalists fired five shots and republicans fired six, and he added that there was nothing to suggest that any shots had come from the IRA. But the widespread belief is that Short Strand, as a particularly beleaguered ghetto, contains its own defence force with guns for use against such loyalist attacks.
Since the last outbreak in the area, in 2002, representatives from both sides of the divide have maintained contacts aimed at avoiding clashes. The local Democratic Unionist Assembly member Sammy Douglas said: "It is only down to good fortune that we are not dealing with the aftermath of a death in the area. The presence of gunmen on the streets is a very dark reminder of days which no one wants to return."
While inter-community contacts are regarded as valuable, in this instance a surprise attack was laun- ched by the east Belfast UVF. It is supposed to have put all its weapons beyond use, but in some areas it has become resentful, partly because the group believes a police "cold cases" team has concentrated on loyalists while allegedly going easy on the IRA.
Last year, in west Belfast, the UVF carried out the killing of a critic, who was shot in front of shoppers on a busy road. With the organisation said to be going through one of its periodic internal power struggles, one theory is that its east Belfast boss is attempting to exert his authority by taking on both Short Strand and the police.