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More than 100 police injured in Belfast riots

Violence casts a shadow over peace talks set for today

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland — More than 100 police officers were hurt as Catholic rioters went on the rampage in some of the worst rioting Belfast has seen for years, police said on today.

Police, bombarded with petrol and acid bombs, used water cannon and plastic bullets to quell the rioting, which they said had been carefully orchestrated.

It inevitably cast a pall of gloom over Northern Ireland peace talks due to resume later today. The process has stalled over the absence of disarmament by IRA guerrillas, policing reforms and calls for a bigger reduction in Britain's military presence in the Protestant-majority province.

Northern Ireland police chief Ronnie Flanagan said 113 officers were injured in running battles with the rioters. Nineteen required hospital treatment, many with broken bones.

He said of the rioting "it was dreadful. It was orchestrated and it was planned." Justifying the use of water cannon, he told BBC Radio: "It was absolutely necessary.

"The sustained and vicious attacks directed at my officers left them with no option but first of all to use water cannon and then sadly to deploy a number of baton rounds."

But parliamentarian Gerry Kelly of the Irish Republican Army's political ally Sein Fein accused the police of being "ham-fisted." He said Catholic stewards were beaten by the police as they were trying to contain the violence.

"People were beaten in their own gardens. There were plastic bullets fired. Kids had to be evacuated from houses because the water cannons were being poured into them," he told a news conference. "This was not orchestrated. We had a peaceful protest which then the stewards were set upon."

Northern Ireland's second straight night of violence formed a bleak backdrop to talks hosted by the British and Irish Republic prime ministers that are designed to get politicians from the Protestant majority and Catholic minority to revive peacemaking.

The worst rioting was in north Belfast where a Protestant Orange Order parade was routed along the fringe of a Catholic enclave in the flashpoint Ardoyne district.

There was also violence at a point in east Belfast where Catholic and Protestant districts meet, resulting in police moving in to separate rival gangs of stone-throwing youths.

It was an ugly end to what had been a relatively peaceful July 12, when Protestant "Orangemen" across the province take part in marches celebrating William of Orange's victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Northern Ireland's minority Catholics, who want integration with the Irish Republic, see the parades as provocation by Protestants seeking to maintain British rule.

In Thursday night's violence, Catholic youths hurled petrol bombs, bricks, planks of wood and even a wheelbarrow at police, who responded with water cannon and at least 40 plastic bullets. Witnesses said several youths were injured.

Police in full riot gear and flame-proof suits used their batons during the confrontations and drove the gangs back into alleys and side streets of the volatile area.

It was the second time in 24 hours that police had deployed water cannon, which had not been used on the streets of Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century.

The Orange Order is a legal brotherhood which is not linked to violent Protestant groups.

But sectarian tension surrounding the annual Protestant "marching season"—always an explosive time in the province—has intensified the political crisis clouding the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish leader Bertie Ahern were to host talks with the province's rival Protestant and Catholic politicians in England on Friday, resuming discussions adjourned on Wednesday without a breakthrough.