BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Police in Northern Ireland on Wednesday blamed an outlawed Protestant paramilitary group for starting two nights of rioting that saw hundreds of masked youths hurl bricks, bottles and gasoline bombs and left three people with gunshot wounds.

A photographer was shot in the leg during the unrest in the Short Strand, a small Catholic community in a predominantly Protestant area of east Belfast.

The Press Association agency said its photographer was in stable condition at Royal Victoria Hospital. The agency did not release his name. Other journalists on the scene said a youthful gunman had shot at photographers covering Tuesday's night's violence.

Police said about 400 people were involved, from both sides of the sectarian divide, but that Irish Republican Army dissidents were responsible for the gunfire.

Masked and hooded youths threw bricks, bottles, fireworks and other missiles at each other, and at armored police vehicles. Police fired more than 60 plastic bullets at the marauding youths.

Police Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay blamed the Ulster Volunteer Force, a group that declared a cease fire in 2009 and said it had disarmed.

"Their hands are upon this, whether by direction, by omission or commission," he said.

Sectarian tensions typically flare in the build-up to July 12, a divisive holiday when tens of thousands of Protestants from the Orange Order brotherhood march across Northern Ireland. Last summer, more than 80 police officers were wounded during four nights of riots in Catholic districts of Belfast.

This year's violence is among the most intense in years, but confined to a small and historically tense area of Belfast.

Police said the violence started Monday when masked members of the UVF attacked Catholic homes with bricks, fireworks and smoke bombs. Two people suffered gunshot wounds Monday. None of the injuries was life-threatening.

Catholic leaders said the violence was unprovoked, but Protestant leaders said the mob appeared to be retaliating for smaller-scale attacks by Short Strand youths on Protestant homes.

The area affected by the rioting is one of more than 30 parts of Belfast where high barricades separate Irish Catholic and British Protestant turf. The barricades, called "peace lines" locally, have grown in number and size, despite the success of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

Northern Ireland's Protestant First Minister, Peter Robinson, and his Catholic deputy, Martin McGuinness, condemned the violence.

"A small minority of individuals are clearly determined to destabilize our communities," McGuinness said. "They will not be allowed to drag us back to the past."

Despite a successful peace process that has brought former Catholic and Protestant militants into government together, sectarian violence is stubbornly persistent in Northern Ireland, fueled by a mix of hard-liners opposed to power-sharing, high youth unemployment and sometimes sheer boredom.

Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process have launched several bomb and gun attacks, including a car bomb that killed a policeman in April.

And despite the UVF cease fire, the Protestant group was blamed for a murder last year.

Finlay said officers were holding talks with community representatives to try to prevent further trouble.

"This has got to stop," he said. "This is a time for cool heads, for people to take a step back, a time for talking."