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Safety fears prevent council contractors removing bonfire site graffiti

Concerns over threats and intimidation have hampered attempts to remove sinister graffiti linked to a row over a contentious loyalist bonfire.

Belfast City Council abandoned an attempt to demolish the bonfire in east Belfast when hired private contractors pulled out of the job after menacing threats were daubed on walls close to the site, purporting to identify them.

Five days after some of those threats appeared, graffiti naming an individual remained on a wall close to the bonfire site at Avoniel leisure centre on Sunday morning.

Similar threatening graffiti claiming to identify contractors has been removed since it first appeared at the start of last week.

But the council said safety concerns had prevented it completing the job.

Police have accused the east Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) of mobilising and orchestrating its members to resist the bonfire's removal.

A council spokeswoman said: "Threatening graffiti at a number of sites was removed by council staff last week.

However, the health and safety of staff is a priority and employees cannot carry out their duties where there is any potential for threat or intimidation.

It is understood officials were monitoring the situation in the area over the weekend to determine when it would be safe to return to complete the work.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has said he was prepared to send his officers in to support council staff painting over the graffiti.

He was asked about the delays in removing the threats during a press conference on Saturday.

Mr Byrne said the graffiti was "unacceptable".

"It's a form of bullying and threat," he said.

"In terms of the police responsibilities I am clear that we will support other agencies to carry out their statutory functions."

He said his officers had been in contact with the council on the issue.

The commander added: "We have also got to understand that sadly once we're in that public space the names are in social media too so we will be working with those individuals and their employers to make sure we use tried and tested arrangements to protect their safety."

It has emerged that police units were poised for deployment on two occasions during the week to escort contractors to the site to remove the bonfire - overnight on both Tuesday and Wednesday - but the plans were aborted at short notice because contractors pulled out on each occasion.

As part of the fallout from the episode, the council has asked police to investigate how closely guarded details around contractors came into the public domain.

On Saturday, Mr Byrne rejected any suggestion the names of the contractors were leaked from within the police, insisting there were "no facts" to support such a contention.

It is understood the police investigation is centred on the suspicion that the leak emanated from within the council.

Responding to the graffiti issue on Sunday, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "The Chief Constable is on record publicly stating that the intimidation of contractors and the impact this will have had on them and their families must not be tolerated.

A thorough police investigation is now under way to identify those responsible and seek to bring them before the courts.

"The removal of graffiti is the responsibility of the property owner, assisted by any other relevant agency.

"It is not a function for, or the responsibility of the Police Service.

"Officers are in ongoing liaison with the property owners and with Belfast City Council in an attempt to ensure the removal of the offending graffiti at the earliest opportunity.

"As a police service we have been clear in our position that we will support other agencies to carry out their statutory functions in the removal of this graffiti and we are ready to do so in order to address any community safety issues and to ensure that there is no breach of the peace."