`Ruthless' loyalist commander to be freed today

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JOHNNY ADAIR, the loyalist whose nickname of "Mad Dog" reflects his status as one of the most notorious Protestant gunmen of the Troubles, is to be released from prison this morning under the Good Friday Agreement.

His release is certain to re-focus attention on the controversial programme of freeing paramilitary prisoners, which, since last year's agreement, has led to the freeing of more than half the IRA and loyalist inmates.

The Conservative Party and some Unionist elements have called for the releases to end, arguing that the Government should halt the programme because of the persistence of violence from republican and loyalist groups.

Prisoners are only released when both they and their parent organisations are deemed to represent no further immediate danger to the public. The authorities retain the power to recall to prison anyone believed to have become re- involved in terrorism, but have not found it necessary to re- arrest any of those freed.

Adair, who was known as one of the most ruthless commanders of the illegal Ulster Defence Association (UDA), will go down in Troubles history as the target of the Shankill bombing in October 1993. An IRA attempt to kill him went wrong, nine Protestant civilians and an IRA member dying when a bomb exploded prematurely in a Shankill Road fish shop.

This was one of at least half a dozen republican attempts to kill Adair. The most recent of these happened only a few months ago, when he was shot in the head but not seriously injured as he attended a Belfast concert while on parole from the Maze prison.

He is being released after serving about one-third of a 16-year sentence for directing terrorist activities of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. During his time in prison he was one of the UDA commanders in the Maze, a role which brought him into contact with political figures.

He was one of the UDA leaders who in January 1998 met the Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when she went into the prison to ask loyalists not to withdraw from the peace process. On that occasion he posed for photographers under a poster which said: "Kill 'em all. Let God sort 'em out." This apparent persistence of militancy has led to some nervousness about the Adair release, although some believe he was not intent on imparting a threat by standing in front of the poster.

On his release today, Adair will become the 293rd prisoner to be let out under the Good Friday Agreement. Of these, 134 have been loyalists, 149 IRA and other republicans, and there have been ten others. Another 206 inmates remain in the Maze prison, most of whom are expected to be freed by July of next year.