Police chief condemns 'mindless anarchy' after 56 officers are injured in Belfast protests

Police came under sustained attack by crowds 'intent on creating disorder'

Northern Ireland's top policeman has condemned "mindless anarchy and sheer thuggery", after loyalist protests in Belfast turned violent yesterday, injuring 56 police officers.

The demonstration was against a republican parade marking the introduction of internment in 1971.

The protesters hurled bricks, bottles and fireworks at police before the parade arrived. Some cars were set on fire in the North Street area, and shops were damaged.

Police used rubber bullets, water cannon and dogs to control the crowds, which prevented the parade from passing as planned along Royal Avenue - one of the city's main shopping areas, near City Hall. Five of the injured officers needed hospital treatment.

And today Matt Baggott, Chief Constable of the PSNI, said: "I know that 99 per cent, if not more, of the population will stand with me in utterly condemning those who scarred the reputation of our beautiful city last night.

"Those people had no intention of peaceful protest, they lack self respect and they lack dignity."

He added: "The only voices we should hear now are those unequivocally condemning the violence and supporting fully the actions of the police and the rule of law and I don't want to hear any excuses for the disgraceful scenes that took place last night, because quite frankly there aren't any."

And the country's Justice Minister insisted there can be no excuse for the violence which often plagues the city's streets.

David Ford said: "Violence is wrong and no cause, no dispute, no disagreement can justify it.

"There were no winners last night, but I know there will be losers amongst the retailers and communities directly affected. I am confident that over the coming days and weeks those involved in the violence will be the main losers as the police begin gathering evidence and carrying out arrests."

Police say they have so far arrested seven people, but have warned that many more will follow.

Some loyalists accused the police of being heavy-handed.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton defended his officers, saying: "Whilst facilitating the Parades Commission determination for tonight's parade and associated protests, police have come under heavy and sustained attack by crowds intent on creating disorder."

The two crowds later confronted each other about 100 metres apart in north Belfast - police said the worst violence was in the Carrickhill, Peter's Hill and Millfield areas close to the city centre.

The parade then passed into west Belfast after protesters were pushed back towards the Shankill area.

Nelson McCausland, the DUP Minister for Social Development, said the republican parade was deliberately provocative.

He said: "We warned the secretary of state, the PSNI and the Parades Commission that this would happen but they ignored our warnings.

"They misjudged the situation and the image of Belfast has suffered badly. That is particularly frustrating because what happened was entirely avoidable.

"Tonight was a bad night for Belfast."

The Ulster Unionist Party said its assembly member Michael Copeland had made a complaint to police that he was assaulted by an officer.

Mr Copeland said: "There was an elderly woman, I would say she was 75, standing in front of me with her back to the police, she was being repeatedly pushed by shields. When I stepped forward to intervene I was kicked by a police officer.

"I have a very old injury which means I walk with a very pronounced limp and I was kicked repeatedly on that leg and stamped on that foot."

He said police also hit his wife and daughter with batons.

The police said they are aware of the allegation and have referred the incident to the Police Ombudsman.

The latest disorder comes after eight officers were injured when trouble flared at a republican anti-internment bonfire near the city centre on Thursday night. Eight people were arrested and at one point, as violence spread to north Belfast, officers were attacked by a man wielding a sword.

The city is currently hosting thousands of international visitors attending the World Police and Fire Games.

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