Loyalist paramilitary 'died of drug overdose'

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The Independent Online

There were fears yesterday that the death of a top loyalist criminal from a suspected drugs overdose could spark a turf war as others lay claim to his mantle.

Police are investigating the sudden death of Ihab Shoukri who was found this morning at a house in the Grainon Way area of Newtownabbey, north Belfast.

And while officers said there are no suspicious circumstances, there are fears that his death may spark violence.

The 34-year-old and his brother Andre rose to prominence to become two of the most high profile members of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA), before establishing their own breakaway grouping.

Ihab Shoukri was part of a criminal network responsible for murder, drug dealing and racketeering and there were concerns that news of his death may encourage others to try and take his place.

Baroness May Blood, who has spent decades working in loyalist communities, said Shoukri left a legacy of shattered lives behind him.

"I am sad to hear a young man has lost his life, but the first thought that came to my mind was 'those who live by the sword die by it'," she said.

"This guy put drugs into the community for years and years and destroyed so many lives.

"I hope (the) prediction of a turf war is wrong, because we have gone through turf wars so many times in the Protestant areas.

"I hope this young man will be given a funeral and that will be the end of it, but I doubt that."

Ihab and Andre Shoukri - sons of an Egyptian who married a woman from Northern Ireland - were regularly identified in the media as being leading loyalists.

Earlier this year Ihab Shoukri pleaded guilty to UDA membership after he was arrested with five other men at a bar in March 2006 where they were accused of rehearsing for a UDA show of strength.

In June it emerged that while Ihab was sentenced to 15 months in jail for his part in events at the Alexandra Bar in north Belfast, he would be free within two months after time already served was taken-off.

Nationalist politicians were critical of the sentencing after the judge in the case said Shoukri only escaped a longer jail term because of progress in the peace process.

It was reported at the time that the sentence was to be challenged.

Last year Andre Shoukri was sentenced to nine years in jail for trying to extort thousands of pounds from a pub owner.

A police source once said of the gang led by the Shoukris: "They thought they were above the law...You could say they thought they were untouchable."

The Shoukri brothers were expelled from the UDA two years ago after setting up a breakaway faction in south east Antrim.

The UDA was formed in the early 1970s and despite carrying out a murder campaign under the cover name 'Ulster Freedom Fighters', the UDA remained a legal organisation until 1992.

It is the largest paramilitary group in Northern Ireland and was responsible for more than 400 murders during the Troubles.

Ihab Shoukri had been a so-called 'brigadier' in the UDA.

Baroness Blood told the BBC: "The UDA is a very discredited group. I know there are some in it trying to move towards decommissioning but in my opinion they are not moving quick enough.

"But certainly his (Ihab Shoukri's) legacy would have been in criminal matters.

"There possibly could be a turf war out of it. I hope it does not lead to violence in our streets."