Belfast riots organised, say police
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- As calm returns to Belfast's streets after the worst riots for three years, police say the violence may have been sparked by paramilitary groups.
Thirty-nine police officers were injured and five treated in hospital, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) said.
Police firing plastic bullets had restored control early Thursday after calling in troops to quell the violence.
Hundreds of rioters from both the Protestant and Catholic communities had launched attacks with petrol bombs, bottles and stones on Wednesday night in north Belfast's mainly-loyalist Ardoyne district. 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 British government's security minister for Northern Ireland.
"This is mob violence at its most primitive -- it has nothing to do with grievances, real or imagined."
The police district commander, Chief Supt Roger Maxwell, appealed to community leaders on both sides to use all their powers to rein in the hotheads 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 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 were still blocking 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 today 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 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.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the IRA had issued a statement saying it would not meet others' demands to obegin disarming.
The Northern Ireland Police Federation called on the Government not to disband the RUC reserve as planned under the Patten report on policing.
Citing the violence and street disorder in north Belfast the Federation said now was not the time for cutbacks.
The Federation was meeting Northern Ireland Office officials on Thursday to discuss severance arrangements for full-time reserve officers, against what they called "a threat of increasing street disorder, political uncertainty and diminishing resources".
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