Fifty-six police officers and two civilians have been wounded in clashes in Northern Ireland's capital, officials said Saturday.
The violence began after a group of more than 1,000 Protestant unionists tried to block a parade being held by Catholics in the Northern Irish city on Friday. When police intervened with plastic bullets and water cannons, the group began throwing bricks, fireworks, paving stones and bottles at the officers — four policemen were taken to hospital, the rest of the injuries were minor.
"There were all sorts of weapons and equipment being used against the police including scaffolding and masonry. People were pulling up the paving stones from the busiest shopping precinct in Belfast," Norther Irish Chief Constable Matt Baggott said.
A few cars
were also set on fire during the anti-Catholic protest, and seven people were arrested.
"Significant custodial sentences will be handed down in the weeks and months that follow — the prisons will be bulging, sadly," he said.
The republican parade marked the anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial by British authorities in 1971 — a policy which, during the Troubles, led to over 2,000 people being held without trial. The vast majority of those held were Catholic republicans.
Protestant politicians condemned what they called "a deliberately provocative march," saying that officials never should have authorized it.
Nonetheless, the clashes have come under criticism.
"Whatever people think about the merits of the parade or the views of the people taking part in the parade, the rule of law has to be respected," said Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
Tensions have risen lately as parades and demonstrations have been held by both Protestant and Catholic groups. Last month, riots broke out when Protestants were unable to proceed with a parade through a republican area of Belfast, and on Thursday, a group in a Catholic neighborhood attacked police with paint bombs and bottles.
More violence is expected Sunday, when another march will be held by republicans in remembrance of Irish Republican Army members who died during the Troubles.