Fears grow over loyalist violence

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Fears of an outbreak of extreme Protestant violence increased sharply last night after ominous warnings that the loyalist ceasefire was under strain.

The IRA, in a rare statement, urged Catholics to be extremely vigilant against the risk of loyalist attack. The statement dealt only with this subject and thus did not constitute a response to last week's Anglo-Irish summit.

Although there has been no IRA violence in Northern Ireland following recent bombings in London, there is also no indication that they are about to declare another ceasefire. Consequently, there have been signs of increasing unrest in extreme loyalist ranks.

Although the leaderships of the main loyalist paramilitary groups remain committed to the ceasefire they have maintained since October 1994, there is speculation that opinion is hardening in traditionally militant units such as the mid-Ulster brigade of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The IRA said last night that it had no desire to engage in hostilities, but added that there was every reason to take seriously the recent threats of a return to loyalist violence.

The IRA statement added: "The loyalist leaderships have shown themselves capable of imaginative thinking in recent times. They should continue to do so. It would be a matter of serious regret should they again allow themselves to be used as surrogates or dupe Unionist leaderships."

The statement followed warnings earlier in the day from fringe loyalist parties close to the illegal paramilitary groups. David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist party, spoke of "serious difficulties" in holding the loyalist ceasefire. He added: "Those difficulties are a reflection of the fear of the unknown within the Unionist community."

Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, said: "The fear we have is that the IRA might take a decision to actually ensure full- scale conflict cannot be avoided."