A total of 29 PSNI officers injured in internment bonfire attack

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PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan

By Rebecca Black, PA

Twenty-nine police officers were injured, including three who needed hospital treatment, after coming under attack as they facilitated the removal of an internment bonfire.

Their injuries ranged from concussion to head, back and neck injuries, after they came under "sustained and violent attack" at Distillery Street in west Belfast on Saturday.

Petrol bombs, heavy masonry and vehicle parts were used by youths against officers.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said bonfire material had been removed from several sites in recent weeks with "very little disturbance".

"Communities made it very clear they do not want and do not support internment bonfires in their areas," he said.

Mr McEwan said 29 officers had been left injured after the attack at Distillery Street.

"Those injuries range from injuries to limbs, three officers have been hospitalised, and have now been discharged, concussion, head, neck and back injuries," he said.

"The disgraceful attack that we saw on our officers, who were simply doing their job, trying to support our partners in the community and ensuring that we kept people safe.

"If anyone has any information around these attacks or the people who were involved, I would ask you to come forward to us using 101 or the confidential telephone line."

He added that police will work with the community in the coming days to identify those involved and make arrests.

"We will seek to make arrests very soon. Evidence-gathering tactics were deployed yesterday and we will identify people involved and bring them to justice," he said.

First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the "disgraceful scenes" and called for prosecutions.

"Our thoughts are with the injured officers. Disgraceful scenes. Important to see prosecutions in due course. A message must be sent that this is not acceptable," Mrs Foster tweeted.

Justice Minister Naomi Long also condemned the violence as "utterly intolerable".

"My thoughts are with those who have been injured," she said.

"I have spoken to the chief constable to express my concern for his officers and to thank him for PSNI's role over the weekend in protecting public safety and ensuring the safety of contractors."

The Police Federation has claimed officers are being used as a "punchbag for a society that has failed to tackle contentious issues".

Chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Mark Lindsay, said: "Petrol bombs and chunks of masonry don't materialise out of thin air. These confrontations were planned.

"Those behind this reckless and irresponsible action had a very clear aim of making officers bear the brunt of their hate.

"What happened posed real risks to the lives of officers. Petrol bombing is a clear attempt to murder or maim officers who were there to uphold the law."

Mr McEwan said police believe two small bonfires were lit on Saturday night, at Divis and on Distillery Street, which he described as "small in scale".

"Overall I think we saw a huge reduction in what we had seen in previous years," he said.

"In terms of the overall operation, the fact that we didn't see that level of bonfires (as in previous years), has to be welcomed by those communities who have made it clear they did not want bonfires in their areas.

"We also know that some of the associated issues that come with large uncontrolled bonfires, around young people making themselves vulnerable to various types of harm, we didn't see that last night and that has to be welcomed."

Sinn Fein councillor JJ Magee said months of work have been going on behind the scenes, and paid tribute to community workers, youth groups and political representatives for their efforts.

He said there had been no major pyres, and just some "pop-up" bonfires where a small amount of material was gathered in a short space of time.

"They are totally unwanted by the community," he told the PA news agency.

Previous years have seen bonfires lit in Belfast to mark the anniversary of internment without trial on August 9 1971.

This controversial policy saw thousands of mostly nationalists detained.

Last year, a standoff developed between young people and police in the New Lodge area of north Belfast over a bonfire.

Mr Magee added: "Work has been ongoing over months, and it has been a credit to the residents, community groups and youth workers who have been working hard on the ground and elected representatives to make sure that this year there was no repeat of last year in the New Lodge.

"The vast majority of young people who didn't get involved this year saw it for what it was, outrageous scenes.

"There has been hard work to stop not only the bonfires but the rioting that broke out after them. It's been a long road and a road well taken because it is far better for the community. Bonfires add nothing, only hardship and pain for the residents who live close to them."

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