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'Police should not be sheepish' about stating rape took place near bonfire

POLICE should not be "sheepish" about stating that a rape in south Belfast took place near a loyalist bonfire, an MLA has said.

A 32-year-old woman was attacked in St George's Gardens off Sandy Row shortly after midnight on Eleventh Night.

It is thought a man at first tried to pull the victim behind parked cars before dragging her into bushes where she was subjected to a serious sexual assault.

The attack is understood to have lasted more than 20 minutes, with the suspect making off on foot after being confronted by people who had heard a disturbance.

Hundreds of people were gathered in the area at the time for a controversial bonfire, which caused damage to the nearby Victoria Place apartment block.

Sandy Row was also one of the sites where Belfast City Council agreed to store pallets for bonfire builders at ratepayers' expense.

Detective Sergeant Gary Chambers said: "We are keen to identify and speak to two males we believe may be able to assist us with our enquires.

"It is believed these two male witnesses were walking along St George's Gardens in the direction of Sandy Row before the incident occurred and had spoken to the male suspect and female victim involved in this assault.

"We are also appealing for witnesses and would like to hear from anyone who was in the area during the early hours of Wednesday 12th July and who may have witnessed a distressed female or anything else unusual."

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey last night urged anyone with information to come forward, but said police should also do as much as they can to enable the public to help.

"For such a serious assault to happen in a crowded public place where celebrations were happening is shocking," she said.

"I would encourage people to come forward and support the police investigation into this sexual assault.

"The priority is identifying the offender or offenders and putting them before the courts.

"I also call on the police to do as much as they can in enabling assistance from the public.

"If this means clearly stating that the sexual assault took place at or around the bonfire they shouldn't be sheepish in doing that.

"Clearance rates for sexual assaults are relatively poor and the investigation into this sexual assault should be robust and with the victim at its core."

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