POLICE in Belfast were forced to fire five baton rounds and deploy water cannon in a bid to control disorder in the east of the city last night.
Officers came under attack from petrol bombs, bricks, bottles and fireworks after around 400 people took part in a union flag protest at City Hall.
Violence erupted on the lower Newtownards Road at 7.30pm when up to 250 of the protesters returned to the area from the demonstration.
The unrest, which had predominantly been a problem within loyalist communities, spilled over into republican Short Strand, from where missiles were thrown at protesters.
As loyalist and republican crowds attacked each other, police officers separating the two groups were targeted by missiles. Several police vehicles were also attacked with hatchets and sledge hammers.
Throughout the violence, protesters built a barricade in the middle of the road and set it on fire. A Lidl lorry and a car were also hijacked and used to block a road in the area.
Violence also erupted for a short time in Dundonald, with petrol bombs thrown at police.
There were warnings throughout yesterday that loyalists planned to cause mayhem, despite calls from the chief constable for an end to their protests.
Individual UVF members in east Belfast have been blamed by police for orchestrating the violence.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott said senior members of the loyalist paramilitary group were exploiting the protests and "increasingly orchestrating this violence".
The violence is not believed to have been sanctioned by the UVF, raising concerns over a split within the organisation which could lead to a dangerous feud.
Last night's violence erupted after several hundred loyalists gathered to protest outside City Hall while a council meeting was held inside.
It was the first meeting since a vote was taken on December 3 to reduce the number of days the union flag would be flown at the hall.
A large security operation was launched by police as loyalists draped in union flags, many with their faces covered and carrying cans of cider, walked into the centre from east Belfast and Shankill Road.
The roads around City Hall were closed during the one-hour protest, which passed off peacefully.
Meanwhile, the organisers of a planned loyalist demonstration at Leinster House at the weekend have yet to make contact with gardai about the event.
The protest is intended to highlight the controversy over the decision to limit the number of days the union flag is flown over city hall.
Gardai are making contingency plans for Saturday's protest in Dublin, despite the lack of contact from organiser Willie Frazer. The demonstrators will be accompanied by uniformed gardai as they line up outside Leinster House and their buses will be monitored.
A number of public order units will also be on standby to prevent clashes between the loyalists and local objectors, who previously plundered building sites for weapons to use against loyalist marchers.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said that loyalists were welcome to take their protests to Leinster House, provided they did so peacefully.