In all 10 people have been killed in a three-day period, eight of them by the Ulster Volunteer Force, which has gone on a rampage of revenge after republicans killed two Protestant men in Belfast. With fears of a continuing spiral of violence running high, police said they had intensified their activities but could not hope to protect every bar and other potential target.
The weekend killings follow the release of official figures last week which confirm that loyalist groups have overtaken the IRA as the principal takers of life in Northern Ireland.
Saturday's attack came in the tiny village of Loughinisland, 20 miles from Belfast, as about two dozen customers watched the Ireland-Italy World Cup football match on television. Two UVF gunmen raked the bar with automatic gunfire, hitting 11 men. Within seconds customers who had been cheering on the Irish team were dead and injured as the scene in the pub was transformed from one of joy to one of carnage.
Bodies were piled on top of each other in the small bar as blood ran over the floor. Afterwards local people sobbed in the street outside as word emerged about who had been killed and injured.
The bar is frequented by some Protestants but all six of the dead were Catholics. One of them, a man aged 87, Barney Green, was one of the oldest people to die in the troubles. One victim was in a critical condition last night.
Condemnation of the attack poured in from all quarters, but Protestant politicians and ministers are warning that toleration of violence is growing in their community. A UVF claim that a republican meeting was being held in the bar was dismissed as ridiculous by all sides, including the police and local Unionist politicians.
The small rural community, which had previously been virtually unscathed by the troubles, has been shattered by the attack. The owner of the bar, Hugh O'Toole, had left with a group of his regular customers some hours earlier to help to repair an orphanage in Romania. Both Catholics and Protestants were in the party.
The scale of the carnage, together with the fact that Loughinisland had previously been sheltered from the violence, increased the impact of the attack on the community. Shock, incomprehension and disbelief could be seen, along with the grief. Local people were said to be 'numbed and dumbfounded' as hearses arrived with coffins at dawn yesterday to carry the dead away.
Condemnation was led by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who said: 'This was an inhuman act of savagery and injustice. The moral squalor of those who carried it out is beyond description.'
Later, after visiting Mr Green's widow, Sir Patrick said of the killers: 'These people speak for no one, act for no one but themselves, they bring disgrace upon whatever cause they claim to represent - a cause that rejects them just as the people of Northern Ireland reject them.'
The gunmen doubtless had families themselves, he said, and he directed comments to them.
'Let us just picture a future conversation you may have with your daughter who asks you what you did in your so-called war, Daddy?
'You will say, 'I killed a man of 87. He was sitting with his back to me. He was watching the World Cup. I shot him dead, he was 87'.
'She won't think that the record of a hero, will she?'
The cycle of violence began on Thursday when loyalists shot and seriously injured a butcher on Belfast's Falls Road. Within hours gunmen from the Irish National Liberation Army drove to the neighbouring loyalist Shankill Road and opened fire on a group of men, fatally injuring two of them.
At least one of those in the group is believed to have strong UVF associations, and the UVF then launched a series of revenge attacks. A Catholic taxi-driver was killed early on Friday and later that day a Protestant workman was shot in mistake for a Catholic.
Security was tightened in and around Belfast in an attempt to prevent further loyalist retaliation, but the gunmen took their revenge outside the city with the Loughinisland attack.
The RUC Deputy Chief Constable, Blair Wallace, said yesterday: 'We are in the middle of a series of tit-for-tat killings. They started on Thursday and Friday and this was undoubtedly one of that series.'
He said the security forces had managed to prevent some attacks but the threat remained high 'because it is quite clear each of the terrorist groups are endeavouring to out-do the other in the enormity of their bloodlust.' The combination of the World Cup and the opening of Ulster's traditional 'marching season' presented many obvious targets, he said.
The killers' red getaway car was found yesterday in a field about six miles from the village.
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