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northern ireland

The most recent street battles in Belfast have left burned out vehicles and led to the arrest of 70 people.CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/Reuters

Pro-British militant groups are instigating and exploiting the riots that have rocked the Northern Irish capital Belfast in the past month, a police officers' representative said on Sunday.

The violence, which stems from Loyalist protests over the removal of the British flag over Belfast City Hall, is among the worst in the province since a 1998 peace accord ended three decades of sectarian conflict.

Shots were fired at police on Saturday during a third successive day of street battles in which rioters attacked officers with petrol bombs, bricks and other missiles.

Police said on Sunday that 70 people have been arrested, including a 38-year-old man on Saturday on suspicion of attempted murder in the shooting.

Police had said that members of pro-British militant groups helped orchestrate and took part in the first wave of violence in early December. The Police Federation for Northern Ireland said the recent attacks showed this was now clearly the case.

"What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have now turned their guns on the police," Federation chairman Terry Spence told BBC radio.

"It is very clear that there are leading members of the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force], who are exploiting this and are organizing and orchestrating this violence against police officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and prevent anarchy on our streets."

Both the UVF and Northern Ireland's other main loyalist militant group, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, ceased hostilities in 2007 and decommissioned their stocks of weapons following the signing of the peace deal.

At least 3,600 people were killed in the 30 years of violence as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.

In scenes that recalled that earlier strife, pro-British loyalists began rioting in early December after a vote by mostly nationalist pro-Irish councillors to end the century-old tradition of flying Britain's Union flag from the city hall.

The Dec. 3 ruling was viewed by pro-British groups as a concession too far to republicans who want Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland and sparked weeks of street violence.

Analysts said that although the violence was worrying, the small numbers of protestors indicated they might unable to develop any strength.

"Clearly the violence is a step up in terms of what's happened more recently but they're simply not getting people out on the street," said Peter Shirlow, a professor at Queen's University who has spoken with protestors in recent days.

"Protestants are annoyed about the flag but they're even more annoyed about the violence. There's no stomach for this, that mass mobilization is just not there anymore."

The police federation's Mr. Spence said however it was the most challenging time for police in a decade.

Militant nationalists, responsible for the killings of three police officers and two soldiers since an increase in tensions from 2009, have also not reacted violently to the flag protests, limiting any threat to the 15 years of peace.

The British-controlled province's first minister, Peter Robinson, 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." Mr. Robinson, the leader of the Protestant, pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, said attacks on police officers were a "disgrace, criminally wrong and cannot be justified."

The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party party said on Sunday that shots were fired using a ball-bearings gun at the house of one its councillors in Belfast, shattering windows.

Second thoughts

A former Irish foreign minister in possession of an unusual signed copy of the 1998 Good Friday agreement has changed his mind about trying to sell it through a Dublin auction house, Irish media reported Sunday.

"I'm withdrawing it from the auction," David Andrews, who retired from politics in 2002, told the Sunday Independent. "It was a misjudgment on my part."

The agreement, made after long negotiations between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, was the blueprint for peace in Northern Ireland.

The document, provided only to those present on the last day of discussions, was due to be go under the hammer later this month.

Whyte's, the auctioneers, described it in its catalogue as "one of Ireland's most historically important documents" and one that is "recognized as bringing the long chapter of the Troubles in Ireland's history to a close."

The final draft with memorandum is signed by, among others, former U.S. senator George Mitchell, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, then British prime minister Tony Blair and Canadian General John de Chastelain, who was the chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The Irish Times, which disclosed the planned sale by Mr. Andrews, reported on Saturday that officials at Whyte's auctioneers said the company had been "sworn to secrecy" about the identity of the document's owner.