POLICE chiefs have appealed to loyalist leaders to call off a protest in Belfast city centre on Saturday in the interests of public safety.
The protest will come a night after more than two dozen PSNI officers were injured in the worst night of violence since trouble broke out on Monday in Belfast over the dropping of the Union flag.
In all, 14 police officers sustained injuries and 12 people arrested after loyalists attacked riot police in Belfast in a serious escalation of the trouble.
The violence erupted along Belfast’s ‘Golden Mile’ as revellers hit the city for Christmas parties and entertainment.
Trouble began in the city when a loyalist mob blocking a road in south Belfst attacked a van after its driver had tried to drive through a loyalist blockade.
Police said an attempt had been made to hijack the van during the incident.
Loyalists opposed to new restrictions on flying the union flag at Belfast city hall have been holding protests across the province all week after the city council voted by 29 votes to 21 to fly the union flag on designated days.
Police fear Saturday could bring more disruption or violence in Belfast, which is expected to be packed with Christmas shoppers.
It is the third last Saturday before and business owners hope it will be a bumper day at the tills.
It is claimed that up to 6,000 loyalists plan to gather in the city centre causing a major headache for the PSNI.
ACC Urban Region Will Kerr urged those organising today’s parade to call it off.
He also urged those involved in the protests to “take a step back and stay out of the city centre”.
“The risk to the public safety of all of those involved is simply too great,” he said.
ACC Kerr said 27 police officers had been injured while dealing with disorder this week.
He said: “This behaviour is simply not acceptable. These people are only wrecking their own communities and putting innocent people’s lives at risk.
“This mob violence and intimidation cannot be allowed to continue and I am urgently appealing to politicians and those with community influence in these areas to do what they can to put a stop to this behaviour now before someone is seriously injured or killed.”
A catalogue of incidents was recorded by the PSNI which included:
• Missiles thrown at riot police in the Shaftsbury Square area of the city
• Bricks and other missiles thrown at police on the O’Neill Road in Newtownabbey. Police said about 50 people were in the area and seven arrests were made
• Water cannon was used in Belfast
• There was trouble at the Mossley Mill civic centre in Newtownabbey, where 600 people were attending functions on the premises
• Earlier, several small protests took place in Belfast, Bangor and Lisburn.
• A protest at Alliance party headquarters near Holywood Arches in east Belfast caused traffic delays
• Protesters blocked the road at University Street at the office of Alliance MLA Anna Lo
Outside of Belfast, around 200 people were at the DUP mayor of Newtownabbey’s Christmas dinner and 400 were at a Christmas function involving singer Peter Corry at the council headquarters in Mossley Mill.
About 30 to 40 loyalists who gathere at the gates hijacked and burned two cars and smashed the windscreens of other cars belonging to people attending the functions.
People at the play were delayed and those at the Christmas dinner had their evening cut short because entertainers could not get into the premises.
A situation arose where people inside could not leave and people attempting to enter were obstructed.
DUP assembly member Paul Girvan attempted to speak to the protesters but was initially stoned before being recognised by the loyalists.
He said that as far as he was concerned there was clear paramilitary orchestration.
Mr Girvan blamed the UVF.
There have been protests since Monday when Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag on designated days only.
Nationalists at Belfast City Council had wanted the union flag taken down altogether, but in the end voted on a compromise from the Alliance party that it would fly on designated days.
Unionists have said they consider the changes regarding the union flag to be an attack on their cultural identity.