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Catholic shot dead in ambush: Attack on workmen in mini-bus seen as loyalist warning to workers at Shorts aerospace factory

A CATHOLIC man was shot dead and five others injured in a loyalist attack on a mini-bus full of Catholic workmen in east Belfast yesterday. Witnesses said casualties would have been much higher had the mini-bus driver, who was shot in the legs, not been able to steer the vehicle away from the ambush.

The mini-bus was carrying eight Catholic painters, four of whom were brothers and three their nephews. They were on their way to the Shorts aerospace factory, where they worked as sub-contractors.

As the bus stopped at traffic lights, two men jumped from a following car and raked it with gunfire. They then made off on foot over a railway bridge. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, which said it was not a random sectarian action.

The man killed was Joseph Reynolds, 40, a father-of-five from Andersonstown in west Belfast. Relatives said Mr Reynolds, a well-known darts player, had many Protestant friends and colleagues. His firm had carried out work for Shorts for five years.

Shorts has long been the subject of controversy. Its workforce used to be overwhelmingly Protestant, but recently fair employment experts have commended its attempts to achieve a more balanced workforce.

This has led some to believe that those who carried out yesterday's attack may have had a double motive, part of which was to discourage Catholics from taking jobs in what was once a largely Protestant preserve. Tom Gillen of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said: 'It's obviously another mass murder attempt by criminal thugs who want to murder people because of their religion. But I think this particular attack is more sinister in that people have been arguing about Shorts making very strenuous efforts to provide equal opportunities. This seems to be a response from loyalist terrorists saying, 'Keep Catholics out of Shorts'.'

Last night, the UVF claimed responsibility for another killing after gunmen shot and seriously injured a 58-year-old man who answered a call at his home in Lansdowne Park, north Belfast.

The Irish government and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, yesterday welcomed an indication from a senior Ulster Unionist Party spokesman that Sinn Fein might some day be acceptable as a participant in political talks.

The Rev Martin Smyth, who in addition to being UUP MP for South Belfast is head of the Orange Order, surrounded his comment with preconditions which included an IRA surrender of all its weapons and explosives, a renunciation of violence by Sinn Fein and a recognition that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK.

None the less, nationalists hailed Mr Smyth's statement as an advance on the traditional Unionist position. He was fiercely attacked, however, by Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who said it damaged the Unionist cause.

Asked whether he could ever imagine sitting down with Sinn Fein, Mr Robinson said: 'I can envisage no circumstances and would not waste my time to attempt to envisage any circumstances, where I would be doing so.'