EXCLUSIVE: POLICE chiefs have warned officers on the ground loyalist paramilitaries are preparing to use guns against them as the Union flag protests escalate.
The PSNI said that riot squad officers came under sustained attack during serious disorder in east Belfast on Friday night.
Nine police officers were injured during the “sustained” trouble in east Belfast after officers came under attack from 30 petrol bombs, masonry, bottles and missiles.
A total of 18 arrests were made by police snatch squads.
Three arrests were made in Dundonald after police cleared a protest in the Robbs Road area near the Ulster Hospital.
In Newtownabbey, bottles and bricks were thrown at police with officer being hurt.
The trouble which lasted several hours happened at O’Neill Road area. One person was arrested.
There was also reports of an attempt to hijack a bus. Commercial premises were broken into by several masked men, who damaged the property and stole a sum of money.
“Police will be seeking further arrests in the coming days in relation to the disorder,” said the PSNI statement.
“Anyone with any information about any of these incidents is asked to contact their local police station on 0845 600 8000,” the statement said.
Belfast Daily understands that intelligence reports warned police chiefs that loyalist paramilitaries, in particular the UVF, were prepared to use live rounds against PSNI officers sent in to quell trouble in east Belfast.
And in a stark warning, one intelligence report bluntly suggested: “We are heading back to civil war in Belfast.”
Petrol bombs, bricks and fireworks have been thrown at officers after trouble erupted for a second consecutive night in the Castlereagh Street and Templemore Avenue areas.
A PSNI spokesman said crowds of up to 300 people were involved in the ongoing disorder.
“A number of officers have been injured and several arrests made,” he said.
“Police continue to advise motorists to avoid the area.”
The sporadic violence intensified during the night and four water cannon was deployed to the scene.
A total of 39 police land rovers were mobilised into the area, totalling almost 200 officers.
Earlier in the evening a loyalist flag protest was held at Woodstock Link.
Security sources said loyalists were now preparing to abandoning “peaceful protests” in favour of violent confrontations with the PSNI.
“If people don’t pull back now, we are heading back into to the bad old days.
“We have been told that certain loyalist paramilitary groups, in particular the UVF, will open fire on police if batons are discharged.”
However, loyalist sources claimed the PSNI were “stoking the flames” in east Belfast.
“Once they start hitting women and children, nobody is going to stand in the way of anyone attacking the police.
“As far as grass roots loyalists are concerned, the PSNI are doing the bidding of Sinn Fein.
“People are no longer prepared to tolerate a police force who are acting on behalf of Sinn Fein.”
The recent violence has been condemned by First Minister Peter Robinson.
The DUP leader said on Friday night: “The violence and destruction visited on the PSNI is a disgrace, criminally wrong and cannot be justified.
“Those responsible are doing a grave disservice to the cause they claim to espouse and are playing into the hands of those dissident groups who would seek to exploit every opportunity to further their terror aims,” he said.
Last month, Belfast councillors voted to limit the number of days the Union Flag is flown over City Hall – a decision which the DUP leader has described as “ill-considered and provocative”.
“All right-thinking unionists will want to channel their energies into political activity and to support the cause of finding political solutions to the problems that we face,” Mr Robinson said.
“The real purpose of those who claim to speak for some of the organisers of the protests is fast becoming clear,” he added.
“It is a straight-forward politically motivated attempt to undermine the DUP as the voice of unionism despite our attempts to oppose the removal of the Union Flag in Belfast.”
Mr Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt have set up a Unionist Forum to hold talks with disaffected loyalist community groups and leaders.
However, as Belfast Daily first revealed last week, a rival ‘Ulster People’s Forum’ was set up Willie Frazer and supporters who oppossed the mainstream Unionist Forum.
The group has now 3,500 followers on Facebook who have promised to turn out for a flag protest at Belfast City Hall on Saturday, January 5.
The group met in secret in Newtownards on Thursday night and formed a ten-man committee among whom include Bangor’s Jamie Bryson, Willie Frazer and former RAF sergeant Jonny Harvey.
In a statement the Ulster People’s Forum stated: “Representatives of the Ulster People’s Forum met tonight in Newtownards to discuss the growing frustrations felt by many grass roots Protestants across Northern Ireland.
“At the well attended meeting, people from all six counties agreed a definitive set of aims and objectives to create a mechanism to drive the current protests forward into 2013.
“Among a host of other demands the Ulster People’s Forum called for:
1) A return to direct rule because of the failing of our political representatives
2) The Union Flag to be flown from every Council building across Northern Ireland
3) Police Service of Northern Ireland to refrain from the physical abuse of peaceful protestors and to stop the present political policing
4) An immediate end to appeasing the anti British nationalist socialist agenda by the persistent undermining of Protestant Unionist Loyalist culture, heritage and traditions
“Although the Ulster People’s Forum seeks a genuine solution to the current problems highlighted by the flag protestors and others, it was clearly demonstrated that many Protestants feel that nationalist socialist Sinn Fein has acted outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Therefore the Ulster People’s Forum in their demand for equality and parity of esteem have stated they intend to increase the protests across the Province, to include protests outside political offices and if necessary homes of politicians and others, and will no longer be prepared to stand by and allow peaceful demonstrations to be attacked by PSNI or nationalists.
“A new committee has also been established to produce a long term strategic protest plan which will give clear guidance to local communities about working collaboratively to ensure future protests are coordinated to create maximum impact and show Stormont and Westminster that the Protestant people have said, “Enough is enough!”