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The Associated Press

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Rioters hurled firebombs and bottles at police Thursday night as violent street clashes broke out in the wake of the biggest parades of the year by the province’s Protestants.

At least five police officers were injured — one seriously — when the fighting broke out after marchers from the Protestant Orange Order made their way home, passing close to a volatile, predominantly Roman Catholic neighborhood in North Belfast.

Late last month, the same neighborhood was the scene of Northern Ireland’s worst sectarian clashes in three years.

Police and soldiers in armored vehicles cordoned off the area, but rocks, bottles and firebombs could be seen flying overhead.

Police fired rubber bullets and charged toward the mostly Catholic rioters. On the outskirts of the fighting, men could be seen staggering away with bloodied faces.

Smoke barreled into the air from at least three torched cars, and a helicopter circled over the mayhem in Ardoyne. Many police later backed off and hunkered down inside their vehicles to avoid the rioters’ near-constant barrage.

Water cannons were also turned on rioters, the first time the drastic crowd-control devices have been used on Belfast’s streets in more than 20 years.

Smaller incidents were reported in other parts of Belfast, including a scuffle between two Protestant marching bands.

The outbreak of violence followed what had been a relatively peaceful day of parades by Protestants, who marched in hundreds of separate precessions large and small on the biggest day of the summertime “marching season.”

Despite some incendiary rhetoric and jostling protests, neither side appeared to have any appetite for a major confrontation during the day — which marked a hiatus in multiparty negotiations being held this week at a secluded mansion in the English countryside.

“Let them do their talking there, across the water — we’ll see what happens then,” said Protestant parade-watcher Samuel Wilson, a 42-year-old father of four who said he turned out to show his support for the marchers’ harsh criticisms of the British government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern and representatives from Northern Ireland’s main political parties were to return to the bargaining table on Friday after a one-day break, trying to defuse an acrimonious dispute centering on the outlawed Irish Republican Army’s refusal to give up its hidden armory.

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