PSNI 'remain ready to assist' in removal of Avoniel bonfire - use of guns by UVF 'cannot be ruled out'
The PSNI has said it remains ready to assist the council and contractors in removing a contentious bonfire in east Belfast.
It is understood, however, that a contractor hired by the council to remove the bonfire pulled out on Wednesday night following a safety assessment.
In a leaked letter from police to Belfast City Council, a senior PSNI officer also warned that attempts to dismantle the pyre at Avoniel Leisure Centre could cause "severe violent confrontation" orchestrated by the UVF, during which the use of firearms "cannot be ruled out".
On Wednesday, members of the council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee upheld an earlier decision to remove materials from the site, which is owned by the council.
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In a statement, a spokesperson said they will also be sending a letter of complaint to the PSNI regarding "aggravated trespassing" at the site.
"The gates to the centre have been forcibly closed and barricades put in place for substantial periods, and threats have been made against private contractors. This is wrong and unacceptable," they added.
"The council has also not given consent to individuals occupying this site or for any other activities being carried on there."
On Wednesday night, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said police remain "ready to assist" Belfast City Council and any contractor they employ to remove bonfire materials.
"It is important to note that the PSNI do not have any legal powers regarding the removal of bonfire-related material from the site," he added.
“The letter received this evening from Belfast City Council citing aggravated trespass at Avoniel Leisure Centre, is being treated as an initial complaint and we are engaging with the Council in order to progress our investigation.
“Whilst the vast majority of people attending bonfires around Northern Ireland will do so peacefully and lawfully the PSNI informed Belfast City Council yesterday that our intelligence pointed to the threat that elements of East Belfast UVF may seek violent confrontation at the Avoniel site.
“I strongly welcome this evening the public statements made from members in the community calling for no violence. I would urge people to heed the calls from the community and not to engage in any violent or criminal behaviour."
Robert Girvin of the East Belfast Cultural Collective, which represents bonfire builders, however, rejected the suggestion of UVF involvement in the pyre.
"This is not a UVF bonfire. There is no UVF involvement here, there is no UVF influence here," he said.
"This bonfire is owned by the people of Avoniel - the women, the children, the young lads that built it. That's who owns this bonfire, that's who will make the decisions."
The Orange Order's Grand Secretary and local Presbyterian minister Mervyn Gibson said he has not heard anyone threaten violence over the bonfire.
"I hope there's not. If anyone has, there's no place for them within the Twelfth celebrations. No paramilitary organisations should be threatening violence against anyone. We want to enjoy the culture, we want to have a peaceful night, and a peaceful day," he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, bonfire builders said they will be holding a "cultural celebration" outside the leisure centre overnight on Wednesday.
They called on "loyalists across Northern Ireland" to attend and encouraged flute bands to play through the night.
Belfast Telegraph Digital