Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Mob attack ambulance crew in city


Windows were broken in two vehicles and fires were started after the lights were switched on

An ambulance crew was attacked in Belfast city centre while answering an emergency call-out after the switching on of the city's Christmas lights.

Rival groups of young people were involved in sectarian clashes during Monday night's switching on ceremony.

The crew was attacked by up to 30 youths who threw missiles as they went to help two 15-year-old girls who were hit by a car in College Square North.

Police officers had to be called to disperse the crowd.

"It is a credit to their professionalism that they stayed with the patients while these missiles were raining down and landing just feet away from them," an ambulance service spokesman said.

Earlier on Monday night, windows were broken in two vehicles in the North Street area and fires were started in Castle Street.

Two males, aged 19 and 17, and a 14-year-old girl were arrested, but have been released pending further reports.

Hundreds of people, including many young children, were at the City Hall for the annual ceremony.

'Young yobs'

The lights were switched on by the popular children's television character, Bob the Builder.

East Belfast DUP councillor Robin Newton said the violence was "depressing".

We can't assume it has gone away
Belfast Mayor Naomi Long on sectarianism

"The young yobs that are out to have a go at each other just don't care if innocent children are injured in the process and deserve to be treated severely by the courts when caught," he added.

The MP for South Belfast, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, said it was a "sad throw back to the darker days of this city".

"The reality is that sectarianism is alive and kicking among certain sections of our young people who didn't grow up through the Troubles," he added.

The Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Naomi Long, said it was "most disappointing because it was in stark contrast to the fantastic atmosphere at the actual event itself".

Ms Long explained that the festivities were particularly targeted at young families and children this year and said it was "very sad" that anyone would come along to it "intent on causing destruction".

Reputational damage

She added that such incidents are detrimental to the long-term image of Belfast, and could discourage tourists and investors.

"It's not only damaging to business, it's also very distressing and frightening for people who get caught up in it, whose cars are damaged or who witness it these kinds of incidents, and that is damaging to our reputation as a city," she said.

"There is a lot of work being done both in local communities and through the council to try and deal with issues such as sectarianism because we can't assume it has gone away, and I think we would all be realistic about that.

"What we had hoped was that the violence that accompanied it on many occasions would have come to an end, but obviously that's not the case either."

However, she said the incidents must be put in context as they involved a small number of people at an otherwise successful event.

It is not the first time there has been trouble on the fringes of the Belfast switch-on.

In 2007 two policemen were injured, again in the Castle Street area, during a disturbance as people were leaving the event.

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