Officers were forced to fire plastic baton rounds at rioters after trouble erupted during a Sinn Fein rally to mark the closure of Mountpottinger Police Station in east Belfast.
Tensions exploded into a night of serious street violence after a crowd of up to 200 loyalists and republicans clashed along the Albertbridge Road.
Police were forced to close off the road at around 9.30pm after missiles were thrown at passing motorists.
As the disturbances escalated missiles, including bricks, paving stones and golf balls, were thrown between the two groups at Castlereagh Street and Mountpottinger, as well as at police officers trying to quell the violence.
It has been claimed that children as young as nine were involved in attacking PSNI Land Rovers.
A police helicopter remained in the area for several hours monitoring the situation and using CCTV to try and identify the rioters.
As the violence failed to subside, police issued a warning to the rioters over a loud speaker that if they did not disperse force would be used and impact rounds fired. The crowd refused to stop rioting and officers fired a number of rounds. There have been no reports of injuries and no arrests were made last night.
The finger of blame for the rioting has been pointed at Sinn Fein for organising the rally in an area notorious for outbreaks of sectarian clashes. However, Sinn Fein said there was no connection between the rally and the violence.
DUP assemblyman Robin Newton said the organisation of the rally was “reckless and foolhardy”.
“ We had got through the summer without any major confrontation at the interface. I lay the blame for this firmly at Sinn Fein. They held this carnival at the closure of Mountpottinger station knowing full well that those who had campaigned to keep it open would find it insulting.
“They were rubbing salt into the wounds of those who wanted to maintain the police presence. It was foolhardy for Sinn Fein to go ahead with this.
“I want to know if this was organised with the full blessing of Sinn Fein or just organised by one or two individuals in Short Strand? If it was organised by Sinn Fein, it was something that was reckless and turned into a riot.”
Belfast Lord Mayor and Alliance MLA Naomi Long said that serious questions need to be asked of Sinn Fein as to why they held the rally.
“The closure of Mountpottinger has been a difficult and sensitive issue on both sides. It was an operational decision taken by police which I believe was politicised. Before the rally was held we did question the wisdom of holding a rally around these events,” she said. “Unfortunately it spiralled into violence. It shows a complete lack of political maturity.”
East Belfast Sinn Fein representative Niall O Donnghaile, however, said the violence had nothing to do with the rally but was an escalation of trouble that has been ongoing at the interface for the past 18 months.
“What I can say is that the people who were taking part in the rally dispersed peacefully and went about their business,” he said.
PUP leader Dawn Purvis said: “There has been ongoing trouble in that area so why would you bring people onto the streets when you know it is going to lead to trouble?”
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