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PSNI chief slams rioters after 29 officers hurt at Belfast bonfire removal

A senior PSNI officer has condemned a "sustained and violent" attack that saw 29 officers injured while facilitating the removal of an anti-internment bonfire in west Belfast.

Three police officers were hospitalised after the operation in the Distillery Street area saw petrol bombs, heavy masonry and vehicle parts thrown by youths on Saturday afternoon.

The officers, who had been tasked to support contractors in the removal of bonfire material, suffered a range of injuries from concussion to back, head and neck injuries.

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Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan speaks to the the media

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan speaks to the the media

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan speaks to the the media

Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan confirmed they had all since been discharged from hospital.

"Communities made it very clear they do not want and do not support internment bonfires in their areas," he said.

He described it as a "disgraceful attack" on officers "who were simply doing their job, trying to support our partners in the community and ensuring that we kept people safe".

He said investigations are ongoing with a view to identifying suspects and making arrests "very soon".

"We had evidence gathering tactics deployed yesterday and we will identify the people involved and bring them to justice," he said.

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Riot police and contractors remove wood from a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast

Riot police and contractors remove wood from a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot police and contractors remove wood from a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast

First Minister Arlene Foster called for prosecutions over the "disgraceful scenes", while Justice Minister Naomi Long denounced the violence as "utterly intolerable".

Mrs Long said: "I unreservedly condemn this violence. My thoughts are with those who have been injured. I have spoken to the Chief Constable to express my concern for his officers and to thank him for the PSNI's role over the weekend in protecting public safety and ensuring the safety of contractors."

Meanwhile, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI), which represents the PSNI rank and file, has claimed officers are being used as "punchbags for a society that has failed to tackle contentious issues".

Chairman Mark Lindsay said: "Petrol bombs and chunks of masonry don't materialise out of thin air. These confrontations were planned.

"Those behind this reckless and irresponsible action had a very clear aim of making officers bear the brunt of their hate.

"What happened posed real risks to the lives of officers."

It's understood two small bonfires were lit on Saturday night, at Divis and on Distillery Street where the violence broke out.

Mr McEwan said the pyre at Distillery Street was "small in scale" with only a small number of people in attendance.

"Overall I think we saw a huge reduction in what we had seen in previous years," he added.

Policing Board member and DUP MLA Mervyn Storey demanded "serious examination" of the tactics adopted by police.

"The violence was disgraceful and those behind it need to feel the full weight of the law. It was orchestrated and those throwing the stones and petrol bombs were following orders," Mr Storey said. "The tactics adopted by the police require serious examination. When 29 officers lie injured and not a single arrest has been made serious questions need to be asked."

North Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly praised the PSNI.

"Many thanks to the residents and youth workers in North Belfast for their work in preventing unwanted and dangerous bonfires particularly in the aftermath of the violence last year.

"Well done also to Belfast City Council, Communities and Infrastructure Depts and Police," he tweeted.

Policing Board chairman Doug Garrett said the number of officers injured was "deeply disturbing".

"Thankfully we've not seen this number of injuries for some time but that is little comfort to the officers who were subjected to this sustained violence and who have been left with a range of serious injuries," he said.

Belfast Telegraph