POLICE say 26 officers were injured during serious violence in Belfast city centre on Friday.
One police officer was knocked out during clashes with loyalist protestors after he was struck on the neck by an iron railing which bounced off his riot shield.
And a female officer had to be treated at the scene by a member of the public while colleagues used riot shields as protection from missiles.
Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland was also injured after he was struck on the leg with a baton by a police officer.
Loyalist protesters prevented the anti-internment republican parade from passing along Royal Avenue.
Police said they came under heavy and sustained attack by crowds “intent on creating disorder”.
Five of the injured officers needed hospital treatment.
In total, the PSNI fired 20 plastic baton rounds and and water cannon was used to rioters to disperse them.
At least two members of the public were also injured during the unrelenting attacks.
By late Friday night, Belfast was reported quiet after over four hours of sustained violence.
Before calm was restored, loyalists attacked a nationalist housing development near the lower Shankill estate.
Roofs were ripped off a new development, contractor vans burned out in what locals described as “serious rioting”.
One local told Belfast Daily: “There was up 1,000 out on the Shankill. It is the worst rioting I have seen in this area.
“Those involved said it was in response to republicans earlier coming into Brown’s Square and attacking homes.
“But this rioting is getting us nowhere. We are being taken down a cul-de-sac.”
Police were forced to re-route a planned republican anti-internment parade after loyalists blocked a main thoroughfare through Belfast city centre on Friday night.
Rioting erupted just after 6 pm in Royal Avenue when several thousand loyalists blocked the road and refused to move.
They then attacked police lines with missiles, smoke bombs, fireworks, bottles and even beer kegs.
As a result, police stopped a republican parade in North Queen Street before it headed to Royal Avenue.
Some republicans broke through the police lines after being held up for an hour.
The parade later passed along North Queen Street, past Carrick Hill and Peters Hill.
Police forced loyalist protestors back up Peters Hill and into the Shankill using water cannon before the republicans marched past the flashpoint area.
Loyalists claimed it was “victory over terrorism” as republicans were not allowed to march down Royal Avenue.
PSNI resources were stretched to the limit as loyalists and republicans converged from many parts of Belfast on Friday evening.
At one point, they were caught in the middle of a Belfast city centre street battle tonight as loyalists and republican rioted.
At least one car was set on fire in north Street.
The Sunflower Bar just off Library Street, where three Catholics were shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries in the 1980s, was attacked masked loyalist youths, with windows being smashed.
In other parts of the city centre, republican crowds gathered in Castle Street, Kent Street and Library Street, not far from where up to 2,000 loyalists are holding a protest and refusing to move from the street.
A republican parade also set off from Divis Street to head into the centre to meet up with the other republican marchers before they headed to a rallying point in Andersonstown, west Belfast.
Both sets of protestors threw missiles at police who were finding it almost impossible to keep control of the crowds.
The scenes of violence on what should have been a busy night city centre eateries and pubs turned Belfast into a ghost town for traders.
Pubs and restaurants had to close their doors for the safety of staff and patrons, with the loss of an evenings trade.
Furious commuters were left stranded after Translink diverted its bus services away from the trouble.
One mother said: “It was just so nice of Translink to let us know their plans. I was left stranded in the city centre and had to wait forever to get home to pick up my son.”
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said the violence could have a lasting effect on Northern Ireland.
“Whilst facilitating the Parades Commission determination for tonight’s parade and associated protests, police have come under heavy and sustained attack by crowds intent on creating disorder,” said ACC Hamilton.
“As Northern Ireland moves ahead, the effect of tonight’s violence has the potential to damage the local economy and the reputation of Belfast as a tourist destination.”
The DUP’s Nelson McCausland said the republican parade had been designed to provoke a loyalist reaction.
“We warned the secretary of state, the PSNI and the Parades Commission that this would happen but they ignored our warnings,” he said.
“They misjudged the situation and the image of Belfast has suffered badly. That is particularly frustrating because what happened was entirely avoidable.”
UUP MLA Michael Copeland made a complaint to the PSNI after he was hit with a baton by a PSNI officer.
The Ulster Unionist Party said its East Belfast assembly member Michael Copeland had made a complaint to police that he had been assaulted by an officer.
His complaint has been referred to the Police Ombudsman’s office.