BELFAST, Jun (Reuters) - Shots were fired during sectarian rioting between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast overnight, police said, in what local politicians described as the worst violence of its kind in the area for a decade.
Hundreds of youths, many with their faces covered, threw stones and petrol bombs in the Short Strand area, an enclave of Roman Catholic houses in predominantly Protestant east Belfast, television pictures showed.
The violence comes at the start of Northern Ireland's marching season, a time of annual parades by Protestants which usually triggers violent protests by Catholics.
"I cannot remember in the last decade a situation like this in the Short Strand," Colm McKevitt, a member of the regional parliament for the Irish nationalist SDLP party told Irish state broadcaster RTE.
"It does not auger well for the city at the outset of the marching season after a few relatively good few years."
Northern Ireland was torn over three decades by the violent "Troubles" between loyalists, mostly Protestants, who want it to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Republicans, mostly Catholics, who want it to fold it into a united Ireland.
A 1998 peace agreement paved the way for a power-sharing government of loyalists and Republicans. Violence has subsided over the years, but there are still dissident armed groups.
A police spokesman said shots were fired by both sides in the latest Belfast disturbances, but declined to comment on what sparked the violence. Several people were treated for gunshot wounds, a spokesman for the Ulster Hospital said.
Politicians from each community accused agitators from the other side of sparking the violence. The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said up to 100 members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which has declared a ceasefire, were involved.
(Reporting by Ivan Little, writing by Conor Humphries; editing by Mark Heinrich)