`Friendly fire' is blamed for shoot-out in Belfast

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An RUC officer last night remained critically ill after being shot by an woman undercover soldier following a car chase in Belfast. David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, on an incident described as a `friendly fire' tragedy.

The woman soldier was said to have been engaged in plainclothes surveillance work aimed in particular at spotting loyalist assassins following the recent upsurge in violence. Two Catholics have been killed in the area in recent days in retaliation for the INLA assassination of the loyalist leader Billy Wright inside the Maze prison.

She opened fire on the officer after her car crashed while being pursued on the Crumlin Road in the north of the city early yesterday, according to official accounts.

The policeman had been travelling in an unmarked car but was in uniform at the time. He appears to have been on a routine RUC patrol which encountered the woman, who was alone in a car.

The soldier, who is said to have fired a number of shots, was interviewed by police yesterday. An RUC spokesman said that at no stage were any shots fired by the police.

Incidents of "friendly fire" fatalities have been rare during the Troubles, with around a dozen deaths. Most of these took place in the early 1970s, a majority of them happening in north Belfast. The most common casualties were troops shot mistakenly by other soldiers.

Coincidentally, yesterday's incident took place on the same stretch of road as a woman undercover soldier shot and killed a loyalist in 1989. On that occasion he was making his escape after shooting a Catholic man.

RUC assistant chief constable Bill Stewart said there were strict guidelines designed to prevent such incidents. He added: "We will be examining this incident and take whatever action is necessary to prevent a recurrence.

"Considering the circumstances ... and the risks involved in protecting the public from terrorism, incidents of this kind have thankfully been few and far between."

His sentiments were echoed by Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis MP, who said: "I know from experience how difficult it is to operate uniformed people and undercover agents at the same time. The authorities must make sure it does not happen again. It's amazing this sort of hiccup does not happen more frequently when members of the security forces have to operate under such difficult and trying conditions."

l There were strong rumours around Westminster last night that an apology for the Bloody Sunday massacre could be made next week by Mo Mowlam to mark the 25th anniversary of the killing of 13 people by paratroopers in Londonderry.

The nationalist SDLP MPs are expecting a move to respond to feelings in the nationalist community but it is fraught with risks, and the Government may not be able to meet the demands for a full public inquiry which could open ex-soldiers to murder charges.