Northern Ireland news

Arson attack on special needs school 'sectarian hate crime'

Windows boarded up in St Vincent's Centre, Willowfield Drive. Picture by Ann McManus

A SCHOOL for special needs pupils has been badly damaged and their coursework destroyed in an arson attack branded a "sectarian hate crime" by police.

St Vincent's Centre on Willowfield Drive in east Belfast is attended by primary school pupils with special educational needs due to social, emotional and behavioural difficulties

Detectives are seeking around 15 masked youths who they say had been involved in "a number of incidents of anti-social behaviour in the east of the city" on Friday night.

Fire fighters and police attended the blaze after the alarm was raised at around 9pm.

A window in a downstairs classroom had been smashed, accelerant poured through it and set alight.

Police said, while no-one was injured, there was "extensive smoke and scorch damage to the walls and ceiling of the classroom and a lot of the pupils' coursework was destroyed as a result".

Inspector Thomas Fairfield said that the efforts of the firefighters ensured the blaze was extinguished and contained to the ground floor.

"We are currently treating the fire as arson and a sectarian hate crime," he said.

"Hate crime, in all its forms, is totally unacceptable. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to ensure that we live in a society where diversity is respected."

Sinn Féin councillor Mairead O'Donnell said the attack was "a particularly despicable hate crime".

"It is hard to fathom that anyone would target a school in an arson attack, which provides for the special needs of children," she said.

"I call on anyone who has any information on those who carried out this attack to bring it forward immediately to the police.

"We must stand firm as one community against sectarian bigotry, wherever, and whenever it arises, and political and community leaders must call with one voice for such acts of hatred to end."

Mr Fairfield said detectives are particularly interested in talking to members of the group of around 15 masked youths.

"Between around 8.30pm and 9.30pm, it was reported that a group was seen setting bins on fire and throwing stones and other items at passing motorists in the Woodstock Road/ Link area and setting off fireworks in the Willowfield Walk area.

"Anyone with information about this group, the arson in Willowfield Drive or any of the other incidents should ring us on the non-emergency number 101, quoting reference 1512 of 13/7/18."

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