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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belfast Squabble Escalates Into Rioting, Street Violence

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- A fight between two women on a Belfast sidewalk was enough to spark the worst street violence the Northern Irish capital has seen in months, highlighting the sectarian hatreds that divide the province.

Up to 500 Catholics and Protestants battled in the streets around the Holy Cross Primary School, which last year became the focus of a bitter dispute between the rival communities living cheek-by-jowl in a run-down corner of north Belfast.

Police said the rioting, which began Wednesday afternoon and continued into the early hours of Thursday, was "sustained and highly orchestrated," with shadowy guerrilla groups on both sides stoking the disorder.

Three crates of ready-made gas bombs were found by police. More than 130 of the weapons were thrown by rioters, along with acid bombs, flares, fireworks, bricks and bottles.

A police armored vehicle was destroyed by a gas bomb, and six cars were hijacked and burned. Fourteen officers were injured and four Catholics were wounded when a gunman opened fire with a shotgun. None were badly hurt.

"The actual outbreak yesterday we think was spontaneous, but in this area, in both communities, once you scratch the surface, the paramilitaries are there, and the paramilitaries on both sides were involved," north Belfast's police chief, Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan, told BBC radio.

"Particularly ... in the nationalist [Catholic] area, we saw clear evidence of people orchestrating the rioting."

But McQuillan said the trigger had been the fight on the sidewalk between a Catholic woman and a Protestant woman that escalated as rival gangs took to the streets, with riot police caught in the middle trying to separate them.

Each side blamed the other for sparking the violence.