Northern Ireland's police chief Matt Baggott has warned loyalist protesters his force will deal firmly with outbreaks of violence for as long as is necessary.

After three nights of sustained attacks on his officers, the PSNI chief constable signalled his rank-and-file were fully prepared to deal with the ongoing street disturbances.

He said: "I want to commend the tireless courage of my officers at this very difficult time. Fifty two colleagues have now been injured while protecting the community during a series of violent incidents. You may be assured there will be sufficient resources in the event of more disorder for however long is necessary."

Mr Baggott said the PSNI will do "everything possible" to maintain law and order and deal firmly with the ugly scenes that have marred Northern Ireland over recent days. He added: "As you have seen in the last few days we will continue to apprehend and put people before the courts."

So far, 70 people have been arrested in connection with the sporadic rioting over the flying of the union flag on Belfast's City Hall. Through special sittings of the city's magistrates' court, 47 people have already being charged.

In the latest unrest, frontline officers reported coming under gunfire on Saturday. A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. More than 1,000 demonstrators had earlier marched on City Hall, but despite tense scenes and some scuffles the rally passed off without major incident.

As the flag-waving crowds dispersed, violence again flared on the Newtownards Road and surrounding areas in the traditionally unionist east of the city. A mob of around 100 loyalists hurled petrol bombs, fireworks, smoke canisters, bricks and other masonry at officers, the PSNI said. Laser pens were also directed at officers' faces. Police responded with water cannon and fired three plastic bullets. One officer was injured.

Politicians and church leaders are holding talks at Rev Mervyn Gibson's Westbourne Presbyterian Church to try to forge a resolution. But Robin Newton, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest. "We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don't know," he said.

The Rev Gibson said unionist leaders were seeking meetings with police chiefs over allegations of brutality by some PSNI officers.

He said: "People saw batons being used against some who weren't involved in the rioting. There's a genuine feeling that there was a change in tactics, that the gloves were off. In these instances, not everybody is a rioter."