In another development, a Royal Marine was last night charged with three counts of conspiracy to murder and with collecting information likely to be of use to loyalist terrorists. The charges followed a major RUC investigation with full co-operation from the Army.
The latest killing came last night when loyalist gunmen burst into a house in Lepper Street in a Catholic part of north Belfast. They shot a 53-year-old man who died instantly.
No fewer than 16 men and youths were kneecapped in shootings which the IRA presented as protecting the community against drugs, but which also served as a display of ghetto paramilitary power. They also led to further questioning of whether Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Gerry Adams, has the capacity to deliver a cessation of IRA violence.
Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, said: 'This confirms that there are those who are more concerned with showing their macho strength than about getting a resolution. One can draw the conclusion that within the republican movement there are those who are intent on continuing with violence.'
IRA punishment shootings and expulsions of 'anti-social elements' are routine occurrences in the republican ghettos, but kneecappings on such a scale are comparatively rare, and designed for maximum impact.
The man who was killed has been named as Francis Rice, a west Belfast man who was found shot through the head in the Suffolk area of the city early yesterday. The IRA said he was a drug dealer, a claim borne out by other sources who said he had been repeatedly warned to stop such activities.
He is said to have had links with the Irish People's Liberation Organisation, a maverick republican group which became heavily involved in drug-dealing. It disbanded late in 1992 after the IRA killed one member and kneecapped 10 others.
The IRA has repeatedly warned drug dealers that they face death or injury, but yesterday the authorities suggested that the IRA itself was involved in drugs. The RUC's Assistant Chief Constable in charge of Belfast, Ronnie Flanagan, said: 'We have increasing indications that all paramilitary organisations are benefiting from funding based in drugs dealing.'
The IRA and Sinn Fein have repeatedly denied any such involvement, taking a moralistic stance against drugs and going to the extent of killing alleged dealers. If republican involvement were proved it would be a crushing blow to the IRA and Sinn Fein, who rely on votes from their community at election times.
Ten of the 16 kneecapping victims were taken to Belfast's City hospital late on Monday. A casualty surgeon, James Steele, said their arrival had coincided with a shift changeover and that staff had stayed on to help with the emergency. He said the casualty unit was placed under a strain but the atmosphere had been one of 'controlled busyness', and overall things had gone well.
He said a majority of the injured had fractures but none had major vascular injuries. The most serious injury was a fractured thigh bone that would take several months to recover from. But most of the victims should make good recoveries in weeks or a few months.