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King Rat defies death threat

The leading Protestant militant Billy Wright defied the loyalist paramilitary death threat against him at the weekend by appearing at a loyalist function to declare that he had no intention of leaving Northern Ireland.

A woman was injured in Belfast last night in an incident that appeared to be connected to the Wright affair. A small explosive device was thrown at a house at Dunmurry, south Belfast. Locals said one of the occupants was the mother of Alex Kerr, a loyalist threatened together with Mr Wright. The injured woman was treated for minor injuries and shock.

Mr Wright's stance has upped the stakes in the test of willpower between him and his former associates in the Ulster Volunteer Force, who last week ordered him to leave by midnight on Saturday or face "summary justice".

Mr Wright, a former UVF prisoner who is known as "King Rat", appeared dressed in a shirt emblazoned with the words "Mid-Ulster UVF - for God and Ulster - simply the best". He claims widespread support in his dispute with the leadership of the UVF and the other loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Mr Wright was cheered by more than 200 people who had gathered at a club in his home town of Portadown, Co Armagh, for a function to raise funds for the family of a UVF prisoner. He declared: "I believe that the huge crowd vindicates my belief that what I am saying is correct and my assessment of the situation is correct." He pledged to "defend the loyalist cause as long as I live".

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble at the weekend recommended mediation in the affair, which has come to threaten the loyalist ceasefire and could affect the inter-party talks due to re-start next Monday.

Appealing against any use of violence, Mr Trimble said: "The loyalist paramilitary groups have, by sustaining their ceasefire, gained the high ground and the political parties associated with them have been enabled to make a valuable contribution to the political process. These achievements should not be put at risk."

Members of Mr Trimble's party and of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party have questioned whether the smaller loyalist parties which have associations with the UVF and other groups should be allowed back to the conference table while death threats are being made.

Concern has also been voiced by the Irish government, with the Taoiseach, John Bruton, calling for the lifting of the death threat. He said: "Politics is a democratic business, where one must be willing to allow others to express their views in an open and free way."

There are also worries that the Wright affair could spark off a feud between the Mid-Ulster UVF and other loyalists. The extent of the support for Mr Wright is unclear, though many loyalist activists are evidently uneasy about the idea of exiling or killing someone whom they regard as a stalwart of Protestant paramilitarism.

Billy Hutchinson, one of the leaders of the UVF-inspired Progressive Unionist party, has also been warned that his life was in danger from the Mid-Ulster UVF. Mr Wright's supporters are planning a rally in support of him in Portadown on Wednesday night.