Belfast Telegraph

Terror of special needs children as riots erupt at sectarian flashpoint

By Victoria O’Hara

A group of special needs children were forced to flee a Catholic church hall after fresh violence erupted around the building at an east Belfast interface.

Petrol bombs and missiles were thrown at police officers and property in the Lower Newtownards Road area during the latest night of trouble. Homes in the Bryson Park in the nationalist Short Strand were targeted following a demonstration by loyalists linked to the ongoing flag row.

Police were forced to deploy and use a water cannon to push back crowds during the disorder.

One officer was injured, and a bus driver was also injured during a separate hijacking incident.

Around 15 children were attending a special needs group inside St Matthew’s parochial hall when a number of petrol bombs were thrown close to the building.

A church worker at St Matthew’s told the Belfast Telegraph the group were left “terrified”.

“We saw they were trying to throw petrol bombs into St Matthew’s Court through the church grounds,” he said.

“They had already attacked the police who were guarding the church.

“Stones were also being thrown by them.

“We managed to get the children out safely, but it was very frightening for them.

“It was quite terrifying. It is just fortunate that somebody has not been injured or killed,” he said.

Local minister Reverend Mervyn Gibson said the trouble began from the loyalist side, adding that the violence has now “become sectarian”.

“I have to say there appears to have been an attack into the chapel from the loyalist side,” he said. “A couple of hundred people came out of the Short Strand and responded.”

Rev Gibson claimed a number of petrol bombs were thrown from the nationalist Short Strand area.

“People came out from the loyalist side to defend their homes and the police arrived.” Mr Gibson added that anger is growing among loyalists.

“The police appeared to be powerless to stop it and the crowd got very angry at that.

“It has escalated, it became sectarian tonight.”

Sinn Fein councillor Niall O’ Donnghaile condemned the violence, describing it as a “blatant and organised sectarian attack”.

“It has nothing at all to do with flags or identity. It is an attempt by unionists to intimidate a small Catholic community,” he said.

SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said the attack on St Matthew’s and surrounding houses was a shameful act of hate.

He also said the continuing attacks on police were “sick”.

Alliance councillor Maire Hendron also said she was “sickened” by the violence.

“To attack a church where a group of children with special needs were meeting is appalling,” she said.

Earlier Translink suspended all bus services in east Belfast “due to two separate incidents”.

One incident involved the attempted hijacking of a double-decker bus. Ciaran Rogan from Translink confirmed that a bus driver sustained cuts to his face.

A number of roads were blocked for a time.

A 17-year-old male was later arrested following the unrest. Two men aged 26 and 70 were arrested at a separate incident related to disorder following a street protest at Great Victoria Street on Monday night.

Belfast Telegraph

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