At least 200 suspects are being hunted by detectives investigating serious republican rioting in north Belfast, it was revealed today.
A dedicated public order team is trawling through 100 hours of CCTV recording and 1,000 still camera shots in a bid to identify the hooligans responsible for launching wave upon wave of brutal attacks on police.
More than 80 officers have been injured in the dissident republican orchestrated trouble across the North in the past four nights, but the most serious disturbances have been witnessed at the notorious Ardoyne shops interface in the north of the capital.
Fourteen people have been arrested in Belfast, but only two in connection with the Ardoyne clashes, and police have faced criticism for not detaining more rioters during the disorder.
Children as young as eight were among the gangs targeting police lines with gunfire, petrol bombs, blast bombs, bricks and bottles.
Detective Chief Inspector Alan Little, the commander heading the Ardoyne investigation, pledged today there will be further arrests but warned that it could take months before all those responsible are tracked down.
“There appears to be a misperception among some people that we should be arresting people at the height of a public order situation,” he said.
“Some arrests were made on the day, however, it is not always possible to do this for a variety of reasons.
“Some of the footage already released shows clearly the extremely difficult circumstances the officers involved had to face. While making arrests is one of our key priorities, keeping officers and the community safe in the middle of a public order situation has to take precedence.
“It is my job to ensure that where live arrests are not possible the evidence is gathered in such a way that we can present the strongest possible case in court.
“Judge us against our actions. There will be significant arrests. Anybody who was out rioting in the past few nights should be aware that we may come knocking on their door and arresting them.”
He added: “To build a proper case against some people it may take months, I may be lucky and get them identified within a matter of weeks.”
Mr Little revealed that residents from the Ardoyne had provided the police mobile phone video footage they had taken of the riots to help the investigation.
Detectives are also examining video sharing and social networking sites to see if the rioters or their friends have unwittingly posted evidence that could incriminate them.
The senior officer said he estimated that a hard core of 150 to 200 were involved in the Ardoyne rioting at its height on Monday night.
Specialist teams in other districts of the city and elsewhere in the North will be undertaking similar investigations to catch the rioters in their areas.
Mr Little is also investigating disorder in North Queen Street in the north of the city on Sunday night when three officers were shot with shotgun pellets. Two people were arrested this morning in connection with this attempted murder bid.
Another 10 arrests have been made by officers in south and east Belfast. Of those, seven related to riotous behaviour in the Ormeau Road and three to incidents in the Albertbridge Road, including an attempted murder when a petrol bomb was thrown into a car.
As well as the arrests in the north, Mr Little said significant seizures had been made during house searches, including a coffee jar bomb packed with nails.
“Just as with the disorder at Whiterock (in Belfast) five years ago, where we brought numerous people before the courts, detectives will gather, examine and act upon all the available evidence,” he added.
“That evidence includes CCTV footage, photographs, forensic evidence and area searches. Everything I can do to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice will be done.
“At the moment there is approx 100 hours of video footage and over 1,000 photographs from my evidence gathering teams alone.
“In addition to this, I have already started the process of securing evidence from numerous other sources such as the internet and other media.”
Mr Little appealed to everybody in the community to come forward and assist detectives with the investigation.
“We are everybody’s police service – no right-thinking person wants to see their police service exposed to these levels of violence,” he said.
“The public know who these people are – there is an onus on them to isolate these individuals and help us bring them before the courts. It is unacceptable that police and communities have to endure this annual event of recreational rioting – and of sinister elements hiding behind children. These people use our local children as ’sandbags’.
“I would appeal to parents – please get your children off the street, for their own safety. Those hiding behind them in the shadows are not the ones with the petrol bombs in their hands. And they are not the ones ending up with criminal records which could seriously affect that young person’s future.”