Kids shock in N Ireland riots
Belfast - Children as young as nine joined riots in Northern Ireland as shots were fired at police in a third night of violence blamed on republicans opposed to the British province's peace process.
The youngsters were among hundreds of people on the streets of Ardoyne in north Belfast overnight on Tuesday as violence flared again following the peak of the loyalist marching season, a traditional flashpoint for sectarian tensions.
First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness, who have appealed for calm, were to meet Northern Ireland's police chief Matt Baggott later on Wednesday to discuss the situation, amid questions over tactics.
Authorities are blaming a small group of troublemakers for the unrest, with Baggott describing trouble earlier this week as "recreational rioting with a sinister edge". Witnesses have also told of how young children got involved.
"I was directly confronted by a 9-year-old last night," Father Gary Donegan, a local priest, told BBC radio on Wednesday, saying he had "physically pulled stones out of children's hands".
"At one stage, it looked like the Milan catwalk," Donegan added. "It was ridiculous. There were girls out with little parasols... it was a bit like a Eurodisney theme park for rioting."
Anti-social groups blamed
Children had never been involved in violence even at the height of Northern Ireland's civil unrest known as the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
Baggott has also spoken of children as young as eight being involved.
Local councillor Gerard McCabe, of republicans Sinn Fein, said the culprits were "an anti-social group hell bent on torturing the community".
There were reports of four to six shots being fired at police in the mainly Catholic Ardoyne which police are investigating, while rioters also threw petrol bombs, stones and missiles.
Police deployed a water cannon in response but reported no new injuries to officers, although 82 have been hurt in clashes on previous days, including a female officer who had a concrete block dropped on her.
British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the "unacceptable" violence in the House of Commons but praised the police.
"I think anyone who watched what they did... knows that they acted with real restraint in what they did," he said.
But their cautious tactics were criticised by a former Scotland Yard commander, John O'Connor, who said police should have gone in to "take out the ringleaders".
Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said such moves would put officers at greater risk from "sinister elements". O'Connor later apologised.
Unrest often flares in Northern Ireland's marching season as Protestants - in favour of continued British rule of the province - pass through areas mainly populated by Catholics, who are generally opposed to rule from London.
Monday, which saw the worst recent violence, was July 12, the climax of the marching calendar.
The date sees loyalist, pro-British Protestants mark Prince William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Despite the relative calm in Northern Ireland since a 1998 peace deal, violence frequently breaks out around July 12 as Catholics try to prevent the marches from going ahead.
Leaders criticise violence
Control over policing and justice powers was handed from London to Belfast in April, the final piece in the devolution of power to Northern Ireland under the peace agreements.
The province's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness both criticised the violence on Tuesday, saying it was out of keeping in modern-day Northern Ireland.
"I am disgusted at the outright thuggery and vandalism that has taken place over the course of the last 48 hours," said Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant party.
"We must keep our entire focus on defeating those who would seek through violence and destruction to drag us back."
McGuinness, of Catholic republicans Sinn Fein, added: "The way to deal with any disputes or contention is through dialogue and agreement."