IRA message to Blair hints at end of ceasefire

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A wave of shootings including one loyalist murder took place in Belfast yesterday as the IRA sounded a highly ominous warning about the direction of the peace process. David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, reports on the deepening crisis.

The IRA statement, which accused Tony Blair of "succumbing to the Orange card", is seen as a figurative shot across the bows of the Government for producing, together with Dublin, its recent document on propositions for heads of agreement in the multi-party talks.

The victim of the latest killing was a Catholic man in his fifties shot dead by loyalists. Ben Hughes, who was married with three children and lived in west Belfast, was shot several times in the head and chest as he sat in his car in the Protestant Donegall Road district just after 5pm. He was taken to a hospital but was dead on arrival.

Three men were arrested by police and were last night being held for questioning. Security sources believe the Ulster Defence Association was responsible for this killing and that of a Catholic taxi driver shot insouth Belfast on Monday night. The victim was the eighth person to die in the spate of violence which began on 27 December. Six of the dead are Catholic men.

A taxi driver was later shot and injured in north Belfast. John McFarland's condition was not life-threatening. Sinn Fein claimed this was another loyalist attack. A third shooting was later reported in the Shaws Bridge area of south Belfast. He was undergoing emergency surgery for injuries to his stomach and neck and his condition was said to be critical.There was no immediate claim of responsibility for any of the attacks.

Paul Murphy, the Northern Ireland political affairs minister, said: "This gruesome round of killings must stop now. They achieve nothing other than to satisfy the bloodlust of evil people."

The IRA statement echoes the comments of Sinn Fein leaders that the document is unacceptable. This message was emphasised at this week's meeting between Tony Blair and a republican delegation led by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

The statement said it did not regard the document as a basis for a lasting peace settlement, adding: "It is a pro-Unionist document and has created a crisis in the peace process. Yet another British prime minister has succumbed to the Orange card.

"This was against a background of the Unionist leadership refusing to meaningfully engage in the talks process, and the continuing assassinations by loyalist death squads. The responsibility for undoing the damage done to the prospects for a just and lasting peace settlement rests squarely with the British government."

Although the statement contains no open threat of an end to the IRA ceasefire which has been in place since last July, it none the less exudes an unmistakable air of menace. Its clear intent is to convey to the Government that persisting with the approach sketched out in the document will lead to the breakdown of the cessation.

It thus seeks to influence the talks through the threat of force, which ironically is exactly what it complains about in the Government's attitude towards Unionism. The central republican accusation is that London and Dublin were pushed into producing a pro-Unionist document by loyalist violence on the streets.

Their allegation is that the governments would have come up with a more balanced document had it not been for the recent loyalist activity. Contacts between Sinn Fein and Dublin had apparently not reassured the republicans that the talks are not being held on a "level playing-field".

A previous sign of republican discontent came on 6 January, when gunmen, now believed to belong to the IRA, shot and injured a man in a Belfast bar. The funeral took place yesterday of Fergal McCusker, the 28-year- old Catholic shot by loyalists in Maghera, Co Londonderry, on Sunday.