Sectarian violence flares in Belfast, two shot

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Masked men fired shots and hurled petrol bombs during sectarian clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, leaving two people suffering from gunshot wounds, Northern Ireland police said Tuesday.

The violence erupted after suspected Protestant gangs who support British rule in the province attacked homes overnight in Short Strand, a Catholic enclave in Protestant east Belfast, local officials said.

"It is probably the worst violence we have seen in that area for some considerable time," said Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Police said the rioters threw petrol bombs, fireworks, bricks, stones and smoke bombs during the "major" outbreak of disorder, which involved between 400 and 500 people and lasted several hours.

"It's understood a number of shots were fired from both sides. Two males were taken to hospital with gunshot injuries to their legs," a police statement said.

One police officer suffered an eye injury after a number of attempts were made to "blind" police with laser pens, it said.

Television cameras captured the scenes of unrest as groups of hooded men in camouflage clothing pelted police vehicles with stones.

Belfast mayor Niall O Donnghaile, who is also a councillor for the republican Sinn Fein party, said it was a "tense and dangerous situation."

"They've hit homes with paint bombs, pipe bombs and petrol bombs. There's a number of Short Strand residents who are injured and a number of homes have been damaged," he added.

Ulster Unionist lawmaker Michael Copeland confirmed that several hundred people had been engaged "in hand-to-hand fighting."

O Donnghaile claimed the attacks were unprovoked, but Copeland claimed the violence was in response to attacks by Catholic republicans on Protestant properties over the last week.

"It really doesn't really matter who is responsible at this stage. It's getting it stopped that is the problem. You have two sides to these stories," Copeland said.

Protestant- and Catholic-backed parties share power in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was set up following a 1998 agreement that ended years of sectarian violence known as "The Troubles" in which around 3,500 people died.

© 2011 AFP

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