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Man arrested after shots fired at Northern Irish police in flag riots

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 201
Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 201

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Irish police arrested a 38-year-old man on Saturday on suspicion of attempted murder after shots were fired at police officers during protests over the removal of the British flag from Belfast City Hall.

Police used water cannon against more than 100 protesters hurling fireworks, smoke bombs and bricks in the eastern part of the city shortly after a demonstration outside City Hall calling for the flag to be reinstated on a permanent basis.

Pro-British loyalists began rioting a month ago in the most sustained violence in the city for years after a vote by mostly nationalist pro-Irish councilors to end the century-old tradition of flying the British flag from Belfast City Hall.

The violence, which stopped over Christmas, began again on Thursday and 19 police officers have been injured since then, bringing the total number of officers hurt since early December to more than 60.

Loyalists blamed Saturday's fighting on anti-British Catholic nationalists who they said attacked them first.

Militant nationalists, responsible for the killings of three police officers and two soldiers since 2009, have so far not reacted violently to the flag protests, limiting any threat to 15 years of peace in Northern Ireland.

However, Peter Robinson, the British-controlled province's first minister, said on Friday that rioters were playing into the hands of nationalist groups, who would seek to exploit every opportunity "to further their terror aims".

At least 3,600 people were killed during Northern Ireland's darkest period as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The violence was mostly ended by a 1998 peace deal.

(Reporting by Eamonn Mallie; Editing by Louise Ireland and Padraic Halpin)

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