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Last updated: January 6, 2013 6:18 pm
Police arrested 70 people after an escalation of rioting in Belfast at the weekend over restrictions placed on the flying of the Union flag at Belfast city hall.
Shots were fired at police on Saturday during a third successive day of rioting, which saw officers come under sustained attack from Loyalist mobs throwing fireworks, bricks and other masonry, in the Newtownards Road area of east Belfast.
A 38-year-old man was arrested by police on suspicion of attempted murder in relation to the shooting in east Belfast.
Matt Baggot, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said 52 officers had been injured since the protests began.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland warned that the flag protests were being hijacked by Loyalist paramilitaries and that the province faced its most challenging time for a decade.
The rioting followed a demonstration by about 1,000 Loyalists in Belfast city centre on Saturday afternoon over a decision by the city council last December to stop flying the Union flag every day at city hall. Instead, the flag is now being flown on only about 20 designated days a year.
Rioting in east Belfast on Friday night by up to 300 people injured nine police officers. Up to 30 petrol bombs were thrown in the disorder and 14 arrests were made.
Peter Robinson, first minister in the Northern Ireland executive, has appealed for Loyalist demonstrators to stop their violent protests, warning it played into the hands of dissident Republican terrorists.
“The violence and destruction visited on the PSNI is a disgrace, criminally wrong and cannot be justified,” he said.
“Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse and are playing into the hands of those dissident groups who would seek to exploit every opportunity to further their terror aims.
“All right-thinking unionists will want to channel their energies into political activity and to support the cause of finding political solutions to the problems that we face,” said Mr Robinson.
“In Northern Ireland the ballot box has primacy and is the only vehicle for choosing the people’s representatives,” he said on Friday.
Niall Ó Donnghaile, a Sinn Féin councillor representing east Belfast, said the protests had nothing to do with the flag at City Hall but were simply acts of sectarian intimidation aimed at intimidating the local Catholic population.
“History shows us when unionism doesn’t get its way it resorts to violence, intimidation and terror. The recent violent attacks at the interface at Short Strand have been little more than a sectarian attempt to intimidate and terrorise the local catholic population,” he said.
Business leaders have appealed for calm, warning that the protests are damaging trade for already hard pressed retailers in Belfast city centre.
The upsurge in Loyalist violence has also raised diplomatic concerns about the decision of David Cameron, prime minister, to stage the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in Co Fermanagh in June.
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