Belfast Police Accused Of Being 'Heavy-Handed'

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Shots Fired In New Northern Ireland Clashes

A Presbyterian minister leading talks aimed at ending disturbances on the streets of Belfast has said he wants to meet police officials to discuss claims they were too heavy-handed with loyalist protesters.

At least 70 people have been arrested and 47 charged with public order offences amid unrest over the over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

And Police service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Mr Matt Baggott said that laser pens had been directed at officers' faces and gunshots fired during the last three nights of violence.

"I want to commend the tireless courage of my officers at this very difficult time," he said. "Fifty two colleagues have now been injured while protecting the community during a series of violent incidents.

"You may be assured there will be sufficient resources in the event of more disorder for however long is necessary. The Police Service will continue to do everything possible to maintain law and order and we will deal firmly with outbreaks of violence".

However, after a meeting of church leaders and politicians and community representatives, Rev Mervyn Gibson said there were accusations that police used batons against people who were not involved in the rioting.

"There's a genuine feeling that there was a change in tactics, that the gloves were off," he said.

"In these instances, not everybody is a rioter."

He said unionist leaders would seek meetings with the Policing Board, the local police commander and the local policing partnership.

Earlier, Robin Newton of the Democratic Unionist Party said a lack of engagement from protest organisers in the peace talks was making progress difficult.

"We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don't know," he said.

Mr Newton said there was confusion about exactly what demonstrators wanted. "I think we need a bit of calm and reflection," he said.

"We need to get wise heads together."

Around 100 loyalists pelted officers with rocks, fireworks and fire bombs in the Newtownards Road, Albertbridge Road and Castlereagh Street and Templemore Avenue areas of the city on Saturday.

A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after gunshots were reportedly fired during the clashes between loyalist and nationalist protesters.

Sky sources revealed that pictures from a police helicopter prompted the detention of the suspect.

Conall McDevitt, policing spokesman for the nationalist SDLP, said the firing of shots at police officers ended any claim to legitimacy by the protest organisers.

"Whatever grievance some people may have had, it is totally lost when they allow people to use these protests as cover for attempted murder," said the South Belfast MLA.

"There is only one response possible - and that's a firm policing response against everyone involved in illegal protests and anyone seeking to organise or encourage illegal or violent demonstrations."

The violence followed a tense but peaceful march by around 1,000 loyalists.

There was a heavy police presence, including officers in riot gear with dogs stationed within the historic civic building itself and on surrounding side streets.

But as the flag-waving crowds dispersed, ugly scenes flared again.

Loyalist violence on Friday night had already seen 18 people arrested and nine police officers injured.

More than 30 petrol bombs, along with fireworks, ball bearings and masonry were hurled at officers during a sustained attack in the east of the city. Up to 300 people were involved in the disturbances.

None of the police injuries were life threatening, however one female officer required medical treatment at the scene by an ambulance.

On Thursday 10 police officers were injured during a demonstration in east Belfast.

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson said violence against the police was a "disgrace" and those behind days of unrest were playing into the hands of dissident republicans.

Street protests have been going on for more than a month now against the decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag is flown from City Hall. There have also been death threats to politicians.

Mr Robinson said: "The violence and destruction visited on the PSNI is a disgrace, criminally wrong and cannot be justified.

"Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse and are playing into the hands of those dissident groups who would seek to exploit every opportunity to further their  terror aims."

Sky's Ireland Correspondent David Blevins said: "There is the potential for the violence to intensify, and the gunshots from with the loyalist area is a very worrying development.

"The clashes between police and loyalists came after the officers were accused of brutality after the march."