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Ceasefire fear after UVF man is shot dead

John Major yesterday announced plans to meet the political representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups just hours after a leading loyalist was shot dead on a north Belfast street.

The killing, shortly before 2am yesterday, at first led to concern that the fragile loyalist ceasefire was collapsing. Within hours, however, both loyalists and security sources said paramilitary groups had not been involved in the death.

Both the security forces and loyalists maintain that the motive for the shooting was financial rather than political, though the dead man was, until last week, a senior figure in the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force.

He was Thomas George Stewart, 32, a father of two, who was shot several times as he walked near his home in the tough Ballysillan area.

Stewart was UVF commander in north Belfast until last Friday, when he and another senior UVF man were "stood down" by the organisation.

Loyalists said the two had been responsible for a "homer" - the armed robbery of a local post office.

The UVF men had denied involvement in the hold-up, in which pounds 50,000 was said to have been stolen, but loyalists said the UVF had established they were responsible.

The killing appears connected not with this episode but with another incident some weeks ago, when Stewart and his colleague fired shots at an ex-UVF member in another dispute over money.

Loyalists and security sources said they believed it was this ex-UVF member who was behind the attack on Stewart. They speculate that he believes the organisation would not seek revenge for the killing of a member who had been stood down in disgrace. A man and woman were yesterday in custody for questioning about the shooting.

A decade ago Stewart faced serious terrorist charges in a big "supergrass" case, but escaped conviction. His associate who was expelled with him last Friday took part in talks with government officials last year.

Mr Major, in agreeing to meet loyalist representatives in three weeks' time, specified that the meeting would only take place if the ceasefire held. He will meet the Ulster Democratic Party, which represents the Ulster Defence Association, and the Progressive Unionists, who speak for the UVF.

The Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, have established fresh telephone contact over the faltering peace process. The latest exchanges were at the weekend, and concentrated on the timing of Sinn Fein's entry into all-party talks in the event of a ceasefire restoration on the part of their IRA allies.