Customs and MI5 officers opened a container at Teesport yesterday and discovered, hidden under a cargo of ceramics, about 300 AKM assault rifles with bayonets, a small number of pistols, thousands of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of grenades, two tons of military explosive and thousands of detonators. The AKM, made in Hungary and Romania, is an improved version of the AK47 Kalashnikov, firing 600 rounds a minute.
Polish security services in Warsaw had tipped off MI5 and MI6 that a number of Irishmen were purchasing large quantities of weaponry on the thriving black market.
Last night, the size of the haul - worth about pounds 300,000 - was being seen as underlining warnings that loyalist terrorists have been preparing to a dramatic increase in their campaign, which has claimed more victims in the past three years than the republicans.
It also justifies the strong warnings from senior British police officers of the threat presented by large amounts of arms available in former Eastern Bloc countries hungry for western currency. AKMs are believed to be available for as little as dollars 100 each.
In Northern Ireland, the security forces have long appreciated the increased damage loyalists could do with explosives. The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, said several months ago that loyalists did not have 'a top quality bomb-making capacity as yet' but believed they would acquire it. Loyalist paramilitary groups declared this week they were hoping for peace but preparing for war.
After the Polish tip-off, the shipment was monitored throughout its voyage by Polish authorities, MI6, MI5 and Customs. The 20ft (6 metre) container was loaded on to a Polish merchant ship, the Inowroclaw, at the Baltic port of Gydnia last Friday and arrived in Teesport early yesterday, a regular passage for the ship. The container would probably have been collected and taken overland to a west coast port for shipment on to Belfast.
In Belfast, the UVF said it remained 'unbowed and unbroken by this logistical setback,' and promised that members would continue to 'scour the world for arms'.
The largest previous loyalist gun-running operation was in late 1987, when about 180 rifles, pistols and a dozen RPG-7 rocket launchers were smuggled in. While half was picked up within days of arrival, much of the remainder is still at large.
Politicians from all sides welcomed yesterday's seizure, but noted the implications.
The Democratic Unionist Party's deputy leader, Peter Robinson, to whose east Belfast constituency the arms were headed, said he thought loyalist paramilitaries were arming themselves against the event of the British and Irish governments doing a deal with the IRA. 'The extent of this cargo goes beyond the replenishment of the stores of a terrorist organisation. This is the equipment for an army.'
The SDLP's security spokesman and deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, said the seizure was 'clear evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are intent on pursuing their campaign of violence, rather than pursuing a lasting and peaceful settlement.'
Bombing fears, page 4