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Yobs in sectarian clashes at festive lights switch-on

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Sectarian tensions have ruined the annual Christmas lights switch-on in Belfast — for the second year in a row.

Riot police had to be deployed on to the streets as hundreds of youths from nationalist and loyalist areas ran amok through the city centre.

A 14-year-old girl, 17-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man were arrested for public order offences but last night a spokesman for the PSNI said all three had been released pending reports.

At least one firework, a number of bottles and stones were hurled at officers in Castle Junction and Royal Avenue, barrels were set alight in the middle of the road on Castle Street and windows were smashed in two vehicles in the North Street area. Sectarian abuse was also shouted between the young rioters.

The PSNI said there were no reports of any injuries.

Although turnout for the annual event was lower than in previous years hundreds of parents who had brought their children to watch Bob the Builder were forced to flee while most of the shops closed their doors and pulled down their shutters.

A number of other young people who had turned out to enjoy the festivities were also left stranded as buses were diverted from the city centre.

Tensions had been rising throughout the evening with a tense stand-off between rival gangs of teenagers, some of whom were clearly under the influence of alcohol, at Castle Junction.

A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council described the trouble as “disappointing”.

She said: “A small minority of youths were intent on causing trouble at what was a fun family event for the city. There is always a fantastic atmosphere in Belfast during the annual Christmas lights switch-on.

“At a time when Belfast is buzzing and attracting tourists and shoppers, this was a great opportunity to showcase all that is good about our city. Instead a very small minority have detracted from the overall success of tonight’s event.”

Meanwhile Councillor Jim Rodgers added: “This seems to be a regular occurrence at the switch-on where crowds of unruly youths come down and are hell bent on causing trouble.

“We are going to have to sit down with the police and see what can be done about this.

“It is a community problem — the children I saw some were as young as 10 and then right up to about 20.

“It is disgraceful and the individuals involved should be ashamed of themselves. I hope the police CCTV footage will help identify them and hope they are made an example of through the courts. It besmirches the good name of Belfast.”

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