Loyalist killers strike in Belfast: Murder raises fears of Protestant campaign - Major 'livid' as IRA men are sent to Ulster

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A CATHOLIC man was shot and killed in north Belfast last night in what is believed to have been a loyalist attack - raising fears of an upsurge in Protestant paramilitary violence in the wake of the IRA ceasefire.

The shooting came after John Major ordered an immediate inquiry into why four republican prisoners were transferred from Britain to jails in Ulster, inflaming already heightened tensions in loyalist communities.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister was 'livid' that officials from the Prison Service had authorised moving the prisoners yesterday without referring the timing to ministers. The IRA prisoners include Patrick Magee, who was responsible for the bombing, during the Tory party Conference, of the Grand Hotel in Brighton when Baroness Thatcher narrowly escaped death.

The man shot dead last night was working with a colleague on a car at the side of a house in Skegoneill Avenue, a mixed street, in what is regarded as one of Belfast's most dangerous areas. Yesterday's killing is the first since the IRA started a ceasefire on Wednesday. In a separate incident in another part of north Belfast last night, several shots were fired at a Catholic taxi driver.

Meanwhile, the Government and the IRA appeared to be moving towards a resolution of the uncertainty which developed around the ceasefire announcement.

The transfer fiasco is particularly embarrassing because the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, had called for such a move on Wednesday. Mr Major regarded the timing of the move by the Prison Service - apparently carried out as a matter of routine - as a serious blunder at a time of maximum Unionist sensitivity.

The director of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, said last night that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, approved the transfer of 14 prisoners - including the four moved yesterday - last June. The timing was left to the Prison Service and was chosen for 'completely practical reasons'. It had no connection with the IRA's announcement. However, the Home Office said Mr Howard had not sanctioned any list. He had simply approved the principle of transferring prisoners, under the 1992 Criminal Justice Act, after careful examination, and because a refusal could risk European Court action.

British Government sources had earlier indicated that they believed some progress was being made on the ceasefire issue, which does not now appear to have the capacity to develop into a serious sticking-point. Mr Major has made it clear that he wants a definitive confirmation that the IRA's 'complete cessation' of its campaign means a permanent end to republican violence.

Whitehall officials said that the republicans appeared to be 'nudging towards our proper concerns'.

Mr Adams said in a newspaper article that nationalist leaders - who interpreted the ceasefire declaration as signifying a permanent halt - had 'responded positively and correctly to the IRA announcement'.

In a further clarification, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said in a BBC interview the statement had meant a ceasefire 'under all circumstances'. An Irish government spokesman said of Mr Adams's article: 'We feel that should be enough for them (the British). We're pointing to that and laying emphasis on it. There was nothing conditional about the statement.'

In Belfast it is considered significant that while both Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have asked the republicans for clarification they have not done so in a confrontational manner.