3 Belfast cops hurt as flag protests persist

Demonstrations over flying the British flag intensified on the fifth day as police battled rioters in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

LONDON — Northern Ireland police say three officers have been injured in a fifth straight night of street clashes with Protestant extremists opposed to Belfast City Council's decision to reduce its flying of the British flag.

Monday night's violence in Protestant east Belfast broke out soon after the monthly meeting of the Belfast council. Police said they arrested eight suspected rioters.

Inside the council chamber, Catholic politicians, who narrowly outnumber Protestants on the council, defended their Dec. 3 decision to fly the Union Jack atop city hall only on 18 specific days, not year-round. Scores of Protestant street blockades have followed.

About 300 Protestants, many of them draped in British flags, stood peacefully Monday night outside city hall. The street clashes started after most walked back into east Belfast.

The violence is some of the worst in the British-controlled province since a 1998 peace deal ended 30 years of conflict that pitted Catholics seeking union with Ireland against security forces and Protestants keen to remain British.

Earlier Monday, Northern Ireland's police chief appealed to political organizers and parents of youths involved in the violence — some of whom were as young as 10 — to rein it in.

"As chief constable I'm taking the unusual step of calling directly now for protests, if not to be ended, to take a step back, for the violence to come to an end and for responsible voices to be heard," Matt Baggott told a news conference.

He said members of pro-British militant groups, who ceased hostilities in recent years, were exploiting and, in some cases, instigating the riots.

Militant Republican groups, responsible for the killings of three police officers and two soldiers since 2009, have so far not reacted violently to the flag protests.

Some 3,600 people were killed during 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace agreement.

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