Union flag dispute: Riot breaks out in east Belfast

Petrol bombs, stones and bottles were also thrown at homes and buildings close to a church at a sectarian interface

Petrol bombs and other missiles were thrown in east Belfast on Monday night during rioting linked to union flag protests.

One police officer was injured. A bus driver was also hurt when his vehicle was attacked by stone throwers.

Petrol bombs were thrown by rioters towards a Catholic Church in Short Strand.

A St Matthew's church worker said loyalists attacked homes beside the church with stones and petrol bombs.

The church stands where the Catholic Short Strand area meets the Protestant lower Newtownards Road.

"We could see they were petrol bombing the houses along Strand Walk and trying to throw petrol bombs into St Matthew's Court by way of the church grounds and we could see that they had attacked the police that were on guard here," William Ward said.

"There were two police jeeps that looked like to me had been set on fire and there was a heavy barrage of stone-throwing and bottles and petrol bombs at the buildings alongside the church here."

At the time, the hall was hosting a social event for children with special needs and their carers.

Police were attacked with petrol bombs and stones in east Belfast on Monday night Police were attacked with petrol bombs and stones in east Belfast on Monday night

"It was very frightening, very scary for the children and a lot of our people had to come to make sure the church was kept safe and we managed to get the children out safely," Mr Ward added.

"These people (loyalists) attacked the police and the homes alongside Strand Walk, St Matthew's Court and the front of the church - stones, bottles and petrol bombs."

Police said they came under attack as they responded to reports of petrol bombs being thrown from Pitt Park towards St Matthew's Church.

Attempted hijackings

The bus driver sustained cuts to his face and was taken to hospital for treatment.

A Translink spokesman said there had been two attempts to hijack buses and the company suspended all of its metro bus services in east Belfast on Monday evening.

Ciaran Rogan said the bus driver had not sustained serious injuries but was "quite shaken" by the incident. He described the actions of those responsible for the attempted hijackings as "reprehensible".

Police said officers were attacked with petrol bombs and stones at the east Belfast interface and in response they used water cannon "due to the extent of the disorder".

They arrested a 17-year-old boy.

'Sectarian attack'

Niall O Donnaighaile, who represents Sinn Fein on Belfast City Council, said he had been in the area at the time along with "other community leaders, trying to maintain calm within the Short Strand".

He claimed it was a "blatant, well planned and organised sectarian attack" on the Catholic community by loyalist protesters.

Jim Wilson says youths from his own community started the violence on Monday

A senior loyalist in east Belfast has told the BBC that he believes youths from his community were responsible for starting the violence by attacking homes in the nationalist area on Monday night.

Jim Wilson, a community worker in the area, said he witnessed a crowd of masked loyalist youths throwing bricks and bottles from the Newtownards Road.

He said that when police arrived, the youths threw "30 or 40 petrol bombs" at PSNI vehicles, three of which caught fire.

Mr Wilson said a crowd of up to 300 nationalists gathered at the interface after the first missiles were thrown and he claimed houses on the loyalist side were also targeted in retaliatory attacks.

The community worker said he was "frustrated" and "dismayed" by the continuing violence.

Arrests

A number of other loyalist street protests took place on Monday evening, most of which passed without incident.

However, police said two men aged 26 and 70 had been arrested following a protest in Belfast's Great Victoria Street, and a 16-year-old boy was detained by officers after a flag demonstration in Ballymena.

The PSNI and a crowd of loyalist protesters at the Short Strand interface The PSNI said they have maintained a large police presence at the Short Strand interface

At the weekend, 29 police officers were injured in rioting at the Short Strand interface after a "breakaway crowd" of loyalist protesters marched past the nationalist area on their return from a city centre protest.

Earlier on Monday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, said people who were organising riots were leading young people "by the nose towards prison".

Loyalist street demonstrations have been taking place for exactly six weeks since Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting.

Since the vote was passed on 3 December, 102 police officers have been injured and there have been 116 arrests.

Short Strand is a nationalist enclave in loyalist east Belfast Short Strand is a nationalist enclave in loyalist east Belfast

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