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Fresh violence flares in Belfast

Police, backed by troops, fired plastic bullets on Wednesday night  

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- New clashes break out between republicans and loyalists in the tense Northern Ireland city of Belfast, a day after the worst rioting in the area for three years.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) said three police officers suffered injuries as the force again attempted to keep republican and loyalist gangs apart.

In the Ardoyne area of the city where trouble began on Wednesday, police said a number of blast bombs, fireworks and petrol bombs were thrown at officers on Thursday evening.

The Associated Press news agency reported that violence also broke out in other parts of the city, with police in riot gear calling on troops based in the city for back-up.

CNN's Nic Robertson: Tension in Belfast
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The agency said police and soldiers intervened in the middle of a rock-throwing clash between Catholic and Protestant youths in west Belfast's Springfield Road.

Police urged motorists to avoid driving after dark as street fights and were reported in at least two other areas of the city.

Northern Ireland political gloom grows  

An RUC spokesman said stones and paint bombs were thrown and cars damaged during the new violence, which came after a device described by police as a pipe-bomb was thrown at a Catholic home in the Ardoyne area, injuring two women.

Police say they believe the rioting which began on Wednesday evening and flared again on Thursday evening may have been sparked by paramilitary groups.

Thirty-nine police officers were injured and five treated in hospital following the rioting on Wednesday, the RUC said.

Hundreds of rioters from both the Protestant and Catholic communities had launched attacks with petrol bombs, bottles and stones on Wednesday night. Earlier some shots were fired.

"I think this is some of the most serious rioting that Belfast has seen for several years. We have had crowds of up to 600 involved at different times," said RUC Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan.

McQuillan said there appeared to be an element of organisation on both sides.

"Last night we had six shots fired at us from the loyalist side, we had three shots fired at us from the nationalist side, we had over 100 petrol bombs thrown, acid bombs. Clearly this was, to some degree at least, organised rioting," McQuillan said.

He said the rioting was the worst in the city since 1998.

The attack on the police was clearly premeditated and left officers with serious injuries," said Jane Kennedy, the Northern Ireland security minister. "This is mob violence at its most primitive -- it has nothing to do with grievances, real or imagined."

petrol bombs
Police had to call in troops to help control the violence  

The police district commander, Chief Supt Roger Maxwell, appealed to community leaders on both sides to use all their powers to rein in troublemakers and restore peace in the area.

CNN's Nic Robertson said Wednesday's trouble broke out following an explosion in the garden of a Catholic house adjacent to a Protestant neighbourhood.

Although no one was injured in the blast, which damaged a shed, it ignited tensions that had been simmering for several days, with police who had been called in to keep the crowds apart soon becoming the target.

"Both communities blame each other," Robertson said. "Protestants point to a Protestant Orange order march last weekend where they say were stoned by Catholics.

"Catholics in turn blame Protestant youths who they say attacked parents and children at a Catholic girls school."

Ann Tanney, principal of Holy Cross junior girls school which reopened on Thursday said: "It's very important that these children are not brought up in an atmosphere of hatred and fear."

Pointing to what was fuelling the trouble, she added: "Sectarianism and territory and also the whole atmosphere in north Belfast is very difficult at the moment, and we are a casualty of that."

Protestant hardliners blocked access to the school on Thursday, witnesses said. They jeered abuse as police kept them at bay and parents tried to get their children into the building.

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid urged all sides to pull back and to "take stock because there can be no justification for the kind of violence that leaves 39 police officers injured."

A new round of talks aimed at breaking the deadlock over the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland were opened this week in London.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has threatened to resign on July 1 as first minister of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly if the Irish Republican Army (IRA) does not begin handing over its arms.

• Royal Ulster Constabulary

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