Catholic rioters in Northern Ireland hurled petrol bombs, bricks and bottles at a Protestant parade and their police escort, seriously injuring a female officer, officials said. Police responded to the "sustained attack" with rubber bullets and a water cannon in a bid to subdue the demonstrators, in the latest outbreak of violence on the biggest day of the British province's marching season. The demonstrators were attempting to block the annual march of Protestant Orangemen passing the Ardoyne shops in the north of the city, a notorious flashpoint in the Northern Irish capital.
Earlier yesterday, police in body armour removed more than 100 demonstrators who staged a sit-down protest in the road. Several police officers were injured in the rioting, police said, including one female officer who sustained "significant injuries" after what witnesses described as a vicious and sustained attack. A reporter with local TV network UTV, Sharon O'Neill, described how a large block was dropped on the police officer's head, knocking her to ground.
"While the officer lay on the ground and her colleagues went to assist her, the rioters hurled everything and anything they could find," said the journalist. A police spokesman said: "The officer has sustained significant injuries and had to be hospitalised." Assistant chief constable Alistair Finlay, from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said his officers "came under sustained attack in the Ardoyne area from bricks, bottles and petrol bombs."
"The past 24 hours has been a very challenging time for policing in Northern Ireland," he added. A local lawmaker blamed dissident republicans determined to wreck Northern Ireland's peace process for provoking the riot, which he said would otherwise have been a peaceful protest by people in the area. "All that was achieved by this was that it undermined local residents and prevented them holding their planned protest," said Gerry Kelly, a Belfast lawmaker from the republican Sinn Fein party.
"But it is obvious by the small numbers involved that there was no mass mobilisation here this evening." The disturbances were the climax of two nights of rioting in the British province which saw three policemen sustain gunshot wounds on Sunday night. July 12 is the biggest day in Northern Ireland's marching season and sees Protestants mark Prince William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Despite the relative calm in Northern Ireland since a peace agreement in 1998, violence frequently breaks out around July 12 as Catholics try to prevent the marches from going ahead. The attack on the parade came after rioting late Sunday and early yesterday that left 27 police injured in the province, including three with gunshot wounds, officials said. None of the injuries were life-threatening.