Hopes rise in Ulster as UDA pledges end to wave of killings

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The Independent Online
Tensions in Belfast eased yesterday with an Ulster Defence Association statement that its wave of killings had ended. But as David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, reports, a further shooting dashed hopes that the gunfire had ended.

The UDA's declaration, issued under its nom-de-guerre of "Ulster Freedom Fighters", brought a palpable wave of relief to Northern Ireland following the fears generated by the eight violent deaths since Christmas. But a subsequent shooting at Ardoyne, in north Belfast, dispelled hopes that the current crisis was subsiding.

A man, thought to be a Catholic, was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. At the time of the incident he was working with a mechanical digger helping to lay gas pipes near a Loyalist area.

In its statement the UDA blamed the two killings of loyalists by the INLA for its wave of violence. Since New Year's Eve its has killed three Catholic men and injured a number of others.

The UDA said it had been responding to republican aggression. "The current phrase of republican aggression by the INLA made a measured military response unavoidable. That response is now concluded."

But although the loyalist threat diminished with the UDA announcement it has by no means disappeared since another dangerous group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, remains active. This organisation has accounted for three recent killings of Catholics.

The RUC yesterday moved against both UDA and LVF suspects with a series of raids, arrests and searches in Belfast and the Portadown area of Co Armagh. Last night a total of 13 men were in custody.

In another highly ominous development police yesterday recovered a large amount of powerful explosives from a vacant house in the loyalist Shankill Road area of Belfast. Police and troops found 100lb of Powergel commercial explosives, which represents enough material for up to a dozen substantial bombs.

All the recent loyalist killings have taken the form of shootings. Loyalists were believed to have only limited amounts of explosives at their disposal: if it proves they retain other substantial amounts, then at some future stage attacks on targets such as Catholic bars, with the potential of large-scale loss of life, cannot be ruled out.

In recent evenings the number of people going to bars in Catholic districts of Belfast has dropped dramatically.

The recent UDA killing spree raised the question of whether the organisation had simply reverted to straight militarism, and did not care whether its political representatives, the Ulster Democratic party, would be expelled from the Stormont multi-party talks.

Yesterday's statement will be seen as supporting the alternative theory that the UDA was engaged in a finite bout of retaliation for the INLA's killings of loyalist figures Billy Wright and Jim Guiney. The statement, assuming it is adhered to, will ease pressure to have the UDP ejected from the talks.

There is already speculation that the UDP may have played a valuable role in persuading the UDA militants to stop the killing.

In Londonderry the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, laid a wreath at the Bloody Sunday memorial in the Bogside district. He maintained the Irish government's pressure on Tony Blair by calling again for "a full independent inquiry" into the 1972 incident.