Northern Irish police injured as flag row turns violent again

BELFAST Thu Jan 3, 2013 11:39pm GMT

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BELFAST (Reuters) - Eight police officers were injured in Northern Ireland on Thursday when protests at the removal of the British flag from Belfast City Hall turned violent for the first time in more than two weeks.

Pro-British loyalists began rioting and fighting street battles with police after a decision a month ago by mostly nationalist pro-Irish councillors to end the century-old tradition of flying the British flag from City Hall every day in the British-controlled province.

More than 40 police officers were injured in the initial wave of violence, which stopped over Christmas. Protesters took to the streets in recent days but had remained peaceful until Thursday, when the community divisions were exposed once more.

At least 3,600 people were killed during Northern Ireland's darkest period as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Missiles, including petrol bombs, rained down on police in the Mountpottinger area of Belfast, a loyalist stronghold that borders the only Catholic enclave in the east of the city. A burning barricade was also used to block a major route into the city centre and a nearby car was set on fire.

Police said a crowd of around 100, some in masks and waving British flags, were involved in the unrest that lasted for several hours and led to two arrests.

Almost 50 rioters have been charged so far, the youngest a boy of 11, after deeming the vote to only fly the Union flag on 17 specified days a year - such as Queen Elizabeth's birthday - as a step too far in the ebbing away of Protestant dominance.

The protests marred a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who travelled to Belfast last month to lend her support to a 15-year-old peace process that helped mostly end three decades of sectarian bloodshed.

Another rally outside City Hall has been scheduled for Saturday and organisers say the demonstrations will continue until the flag is restored to the City Hall roof.

The now regular weekend rallies have mostly remained peaceful but disrupted pre-Christmas trade in Belfast city centre shops.

(Reporting Ian Graham; Editing by Padraic Halpin and Alison Williams)

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