DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland police fought day-and-night street battles with Protestant militants Saturday as a protest march to Belfast City Hall degenerated into riots when many marchers returned home to the Protestant east side.
The Protestants, who have blocked streets daily since Catholics on the council decided Dec. 3 to curtail the flying of the British flag, have frequently clashed with police in hopes of forcing politicians to overturn the decision. The street confrontations have stirred sectarian passions, particularly in Protestant east Belfast and its lone Catholic enclave, Short Strand, flashpoint for the most protracted rioting over the past six weeks.
Saturday's violence began as police donning helmets, shields and flame-retardent suits tried to shepherd the British flag-bedecked crowd past Short Strand, where masked and hooded Catholic men and youths waited by their doors armed with Gaelic hurling bats, golf clubs and other makeshift weapons. The two sides began throwing bottles, rocks and other missiles at each other and, as police on foot struggled to keep the two sides apart, Protestant anger turned against the police.
Police marched down the street with shields locked, backed by blasts from three massive mobile water cannons. Officers also fired at least a half-dozen baton rounds — blunt-nosed, inch (2.5-centimeter)-thick cylinders colloquially known as plastic bullets — at rioters.
After the initial two-hour clash subsided, police at nighttime confronted a renewed mob of Protestant youths on nearby Castlereagh Street, where a car was stolen and burned as a barricade. A police helicopter overhead shone its spotlight on the crowd, which chanted anti-police and anti-Catholic slogans.
Police commander Mark Baggott said 29 of his officers were injured in the two operations, bringing total police casualties above 100 since the first riots outside city hall on Dec. 3. The clashes have cost Northern Ireland an estimated 25 million pounds ($40 million) in lost trade and tourism and in police overtime bills.