Armed extremists 'were shooting to kill'

HUNDREDS of rioters returned to the streets of Belfast last night, hijacking cars, blocking roads and attacking police lines with petrol bombs, bottles and stones.

A blast bomb was thrown at a police station in West Belfast, but nobody was injured in that explosion.

As attacks at the New Barnsley police station grew worse, a car and van were crashed into the gates. Wheelie bins and gas cylinders were also set alight.

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Elsewhere, ten people were arrested and police fired baton rounds after being targeted. One officer was injured.

The renewed violence came after the chief constable of Northern Ireland accused Protestant extremists of trying to kill his police officers.

The rioting - the worst to hit the province in a decade - began on Saturday night after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade. Police said surveillance footage of that violence showed paramilitaries armed with automatic weapons and explosive devices and members of the Orange Order attacking police and orchestrating the violence.

More than 50 live rounds were fired at police and soldiers, who returned fire with plastic bullets. A bomb-making factory and seven firearms were seized in follow-up raids yesterday.

Water cannons were deployed, but they proved ineffective in clearing the streets. Police said 32 officers were injured, but with rioters avoiding hospitals for fear of arrest, only two civilian casualties - one with gunshot wounds, another with blast injuries - were reported.

Chief Constable Hugh Orde said it was clear that the gunmen had been firing at the security forces, and he blamed two major outlawed Protestant groups - the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force - for orchestrating what he called "completely organised" attacks. "Officers were shot at last night. We are very lucky we do not have dead officers this morning," he said yesterday.

Trouble flared after the Parades Commission decided to re-route the Whiterock Parade away from a Catholic area of west Belfast.

Police and soldiers fired at least 430 baton rounds and seven live rounds at the rioters as they tried to fend off mobs of Protestant men and teenagers in several parts of Belfast and in seven other predominantly Protestant towns and villages. Catholics were also involved, throwing stones and other objects into police lines and the Protestant crowds beyond. Cranes had to be brought in yesterday to remove burned-out cars from Belfast's streets. Caches of petrol and pipe bombs were seized and a number of live devices were defused.

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More than 1,000 police officers and 1,000 soldiers were drafted in as crowds attacked them. In the most intense exchanges, masked Protestant men and youths hurled homemade grenades and petrol bombs and fired automatic guns at police and army positions about half a mile from the spot where Orangemen had been prevented from marching past a Catholic section of the Springfield Road.

Mr Orde said the Orange Order had to take the blame for much of the trouble because it had encouraged the rioters by organising sit-down protests on major roads and junctions.

"They publicly called people on to the streets. I think if you do that, you cannot then abdicate responsibility."

But the Orange Order rejected his remarks as "intemperate, inflammatory and inaccurate". It described police operations as "policing at its worst".

Calm was eventually restored to most parts of Belfast yesterday morning. But a 700-strong group of rioters returned to the streets last night after police raided homes looking for rioters. In one blatant sign of outlawed groups' involvement, masked and armed men stopped cars and checked people's licences at a checkpoint in north Belfast, a stronghold of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in a show of strength designed to mock police authority.

Two men also hijacked a bus full of passengers in Bangor, Co Down, police said. The vehicle was driven from Belfast Road to Clandeboye Road where those on board had personal belongings stolen from them before being ordered off. The bus was then driven on to Green Road, Conlig, where it was set alight.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said: "Attempted murder cannot in any way be justified. There can be no ambiguity or excuse for breaking the law."

Mr Hain, who is to meet Mr Orde today, said he expected everyone, including the Orange Order, to condemn the violence.

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Sinn Fein claimed Catholics had been dragged from their cars by rioters.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, said: "There is a concerted attempt under way to draw young nationalists and republicans into conflict at interface areas across Belfast."

Alasdair McDonnell, the deputy leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democrat and Labour Party, warned that the violence had seriously damaged the political process. "The irony of the situation is that the Orange Order and loyalist paramilitaries have further damaged and seriously discredited themselves with people in Britain and, as a result, the very Union they adhere to has been weakened," he said.

But Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused the Parades Commission of treating marchers shamefully. "The commission treated elected representatives with contempt by its refusal to even call us to put our case. We were refused the opportunity to give greater detail," he said. "At this time, I appeal to all law-abiding people to remain calm."

Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, also criticised police tactics. "I have personally witnessed women, who had been trying to prevent stoning, being pushed to the ground for no justifiable reason," he said.

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