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82 police injured in Northern Ireland's 2 nights of Catholic riots; politicians plead for calm

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Northern Ireland leaders condemned Irish nationalist rioters Tuesday who wounded 82 police officers during two nights of street clashes sparked by the province's annual parades by the British Protestant majority.

While most of the injured officers suffered only cuts and bruises, others suffered burns and broken hands. Two remained hospitalized: a policeman wounded in the chest and arms by a shotgun blast, and a policewoman who had a paving stone dropped on her head from a shop's rooftop.

The violence in working-class Catholic parts of Belfast and other towns came both before and after tens of thousands of Protestants of the Orange Order brotherhood marched at 18 locations across Northern Ireland in an annual show of communal strength. It was the worst rioting in Belfast since the same event exactly one year ago.

Politicians and police commanders said the rioters, influenced by Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to compromise, were chiefly motivated to attack the police themselves. IRA dissidents have focused in recent months on trying to lure police into ambushes, until now with little success.

The Northern Ireland police commander, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, released video of Monday's rioting in two parts of Belfast captured by surveillance helicopters. The footage showed hundreds of masked teens and young men swarming and pummeling police armored vehicles and swinging clubs at ranks of shield-wielding police while the officers stood their ground or retreated slowly.

Baggott defended his force's decision not to attempt to arrest rioters because it would be too dangerous for officers and rioters alike. But he said extensive video evidence would be analyzed to try to identify the face of each rioter, many of whom hid behind hoods and scarves — among them children as young as 8.

He said the money being spent on police overtime, medical care, destroyed equipment and property was a multimillion euro waste that Northern Ireland couldn't afford.

"The cost of policing last night ... is the equivalent of a new ward in a hospital, the equivalent of a new primary school," he told reporters at his Belfast headquarters.

Baggott's Belfast deputy, Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, criticized the leaders of Northern Ireland's 3-year-old government for failing to resolve parade-related confrontations.

Finlay said the Protestant first minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, and his Catholic deputy, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, both have failed to show any public leadership during or after the riots.

Finlay questioned whether "they have a plan to meet this type of issue next time it comes round, rather than waiting until it inevitably comes around next year."

Hours later, Robinson and McGuinness — whose power-sharing coalition is a central achievement of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord — issued a joint statement condemning the rioters and slating the deputy police commander too.

Robinson said he would meet Baggott to seek a reprimand of Finlay for his "unhelpful and unacceptable remarks." He denounced the rioters' "thuggery and vandalism."

"Let's be clear. There is no excuse for the violent scenes and attacks on police, property and the community that we have witnessed in recent days," McGuinness said. He appealed to the public "to stand united against all those forces seeking to bring conflict back on to our streets."

Several Belfast roads remained closed Tuesday as workers cleared away the remains of the riots: blackened shells of cars that were stolen and torched; roadways littered with glass shards and scorched by impacts from Molotov cocktails; errant objects — wood planks, a beer keg, iron scaffolding, a child's bicycle — that had been thrown at police; garbage cans lined up on a bridge and set on fire.

A moderate Irish nationalist lawmaker, Conal McDevitt, said most rioters were teenagers who lack any coherent political philosophy, only a desire to lash out at police.

"This seems to be as much about aping what they saw previous generations of so-called 'hard men' doing, than protesting or opposing an Orange march," said McDevitt, who asked Catholics to tell police about the rioters living in their communities.

Northern Ireland's main rail line remained partly closed after Irish nationalist rioters in Lurgan, southwest of Belfast, tried to set fire to a train with 55 passengers on board. Nobody was hurt because the engineer drove the train away quickly.

In Northern Ireland's second-largest city of Londonderry, a lone gunman using a nearby pub for cover fired at least five shots from a handgun at police Tuesday as they tried to extinguish a fire that had engulfed a police armored vehicle. Nobody was hurt, and police said the masked gunman escaped.

Monday's violence began in Ardoyne, a traditional IRA power base in north Belfast, where about 100 demonstrators tried to block one parade route while masked men and youths on side streets bombarded police with bricks, bottles, stones, Molotov cocktails and at least one homemade grenade.

Police said they fired about 70 plastic bullets during four hours of street clashes in Ardoyne.

Since 1998, a British-appointed Parades Commission has imposed restrictions on Orange marching routes to prevent the Protestants — accompanied by "kick the pope" bands of tattooed men playing fife and drum — from passing most Catholic districts.

Still, authorities have failed to negotiate alternative routes for some parades, including the one past Ardoyne's row of shops on Crumlin Road. The thoroughfare connects one Orange lodge to central Belfast. The disputed Ardoyne parade involves a single Orange lodge of about 30 men and an accompanying band of about 50 men and boys.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government plans to scrap the Parades Commission in favor of locally controlled mediation arrangements. Critics say those plans could backfire and reopen wider disputes over next July's Orange parades.