Protestant blow to peace process

In an ominous sign for the continuation of the loyalist ceasefire, jailed members of one of the two main Protestant paramilitary groups yesterday announced that they were withdrawing their support from the peace process.

The announcement came from prisoners affiliated to the Ulster Defence Association held at Northern Ireland's main paramilitary jail, the Maze prison outside Belfast.

It followed meetings between prisoners' representatives and leaders of the Ulster Democratic party, one of the groups which represent the interests of loyalist paramilitants at the Stormont talks.

The UDP spokesman John White, himself a former prisoner, said he was concerned about a situation which could develop into crisis. He said the prisoners felt that republicans were talking about peace but in reality preparing for war.

The move is seen as a clear sign of growing strains on the loyalist ceasefire which has held since October 1994. Last week's discovery of a large IRA explosives cache in England has convinced some elements, who had previously been prepared to give republicans the benefit of the doubt, that the IRA is intent on a return to large-scale violence.

In recent years prisoners have been among the more moderate elements within militant loyalism, having strongly supported the establishment of the loyalist ceasefire two years ago.

Earlier yesterday Gary McMichael of the UDP has said that he viewed the IRA's stance with cynicism, adding that a restoration of the republican ceasefire would not be enough to allow Sinn Fein into talks on the same basis as other participants.

Unease in loyalist circles has also been increased by Sunday night's abortive attempt by a republican splinter group to let off a large bomb in Belfast. Police said yesterday that a car close to the city centre had been found to contain 250lb of home-made explosives, an amount large enough to cause widespread damage.

The bomb was the work of the "Continuity army council," a fringe organisation which believes that the IRA is not militant enough. The signs are that the bomb was abandoned before reaching its target. The group blew up a hotel in Co Fermanagh in July.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, reiterated his party's demand that Sinn Fein should not be directly admitted to talks in the event of a new IRA ceasefire, and that some IRA arms should first be handed over.

Mr Trimble claimed the British and Irish governments were attempting to sideline the issue of arms decommissioning and were not treating it seriously enough.

In Britain four men appeared in a high security court yesterday charged with terrorist offences after police raids last week.

Brian McHugh, Patrick Pearse Joseph Kelly, James Murphy and Michael Phillips were all remanded until 9 October.

But only Mr Murphy will reappear at the Belmarsh Magistrates' Court, south-east London, after the other three waived their right to be present at the hearing. They will reappear on 30 October.

The men said nothing during the hour-long hearing.

All four are charged with conspiring to cause an explosion likely to endanger life or cause serious damage to property, and possession of explosives.