Police in Northern Ireland have said the violence in west Belfast last night was of a scale not seen in recent years.

During a briefing this afternoon, Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said children as young as 13 and 14 were encouraged by adults, who stood by clapping, to become involved in violent disorder.

He asked those people to "stand back and take a good look at themselves" and for anyone with influence to encourage young people to stay in their houses and to protect them.

Mr Roberts said police believe there was a level of pre-planning in last night's disorder, given the number of petrol bombs and other objects which were used. 

He said the behaviour from both sides of the community in the Lanark Way and West Circular Road areas needs to stop, and that there is now "a new generation of children and young people exposed to things that they will not have seen previously... and that is not something we want to see".

Mr Roberts said police are investigating the orchestration of last night's disorder and the events of the previous nights, and are investigating if there was paramilitary involvement.

He condemned the scenes in west Belfast last night as "disgraceful and distressing."

A total of 55 PSNI officers have been injured in the ongoing unrest in Belfast and Derry and Mr Roberts said it is fortunate that there have been no serious injuries sustained.

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The PSNI is monitoring other protests planned on social media for the coming days.

He said that many of the adults involved in the disorder are not part of any paramilitary groups, although the amount of weapons involved suggested there was some planning and orchestration.

He said crowds had forced open the gates at Lanark Way and attacked each other.

Police officers discharged a number of AEP rounds, he said, adding "it is not a tactic the police wish to revert to but given the potential for imminent loss of life it is a tactic that was deployed last night".

He warned that those who participate in such disorder in the future could be the subject of the use of police force, and that anyone who participated can expect to be arrested and held in custody before appearing in court.

He said it is a worrying time for police officers and for their families and while it was fortunate that the police injuries sustained were relatively minor, given the amount and type of weapons thrown at them.

He said that the behaviour from both sides needs to stop and will "achieve nothing other than the potential to seriously injure or kill".

"Police officers are part of the community too and have families who worry about them while they are out of duty".

Earlier, NI Police Federation chair Mark Lindsay expressed concern at the ongoing calls from unionist leaders for the resignation of the PSNI's Chief Constable over the handling of the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey last year.

"I think the Executive need to stand together and need to make very, very firm statements around where they stand in the support in law and order," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

"They cannot differentiate between supporting the Chief Constable and supporting officers on the ground.

"Policing needs leadership, it needs a Chief Constable, and really in the middle of a crisis this isn't terribly helpful."

He added: "We all have to work with our Chief Constable, we do need a Chief Constable. I don't think removing him at this stage would be terribly helpful." 

The NI Police Federation, the body that represents rank and file PSNI officers, has said at least seven officers were injured in last night's rioting.

Mr Lindsay said the violence was "disturbing" and escalated a "couple of notches" from the disorder witnessed over previous days.