BELFAST (Reuters) - Police in Northern Ireland are being forced to flee their homes by nationalist militants stepping up attacks on a force they consider to be a symbol of British rule, a police official said on Wednesday.
More than 30police officers and their families had been forced to flee their homes and had to be rehoused elsewhere since the start of last year because of the threat of violence directed against them, Police Federation chairman Terry Spence said.
Attacks aimed at police officers, and others, have increased over the past two years and are threatening to upset a delicate peace between Catholics and Protestants brokered after a 1998 deal mostly ended three decades of violence, Spence said.
Pointing to the more than 200 gun and bomb attacks over the past 18 months, Spence said the number of nationalist splinter group members was higher than the most recent police estimate of 300-400.
"It is common knowledge that they (the dissidents) number around 650 -- hardly the microscopic numbers suggested in official circles," he told the federation's annual conference.
Armed dissident groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA oppose the peace process and Britain's presence in Northern Ireland but lack the wider community support paramilitary organisations had during the bloody period known as "the troubles."
Spence also called for members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which was one of the deadliest pro-British paramilitary groups of Northern Ireland's bloody past and was blamed for riots in Belfast last week, to be sent back to prison.
Members of the UVF, which said two years ago it had completed the decommissioning of its weapons in line with other militant groups, were freed from prison under the 13-year-old peace deal.
A press photographer was shot and wounded last week in riots between pro-British loyalists and Irish nationalists that were among the worst in Belfast in recent years.
"The behavior of the UVF demands that active members released under the Agreement on license should be recalled to prison by the Secretary of State," Spence said.
"We cannot tolerate paramilitary groups creating public havoc because they think they have no voice in how Northern Ireland is governed."
(Reporting by Ian Graham, editing by Padraic Halpin and Michael Roddy)