Loyalists pledge to avenge shootings: Ian MacKinnon finds tension running high in parts of Belfast after the latest sectarian killings, with IRA gunmen promised a 'summary execution'

TENSION grew steadily in Belfast yesterday, with fears that Protestant terrorists would unleash a bloody attack in revenge for the murder of two leading loyalist figures after a chilling threat to the IRA and its supporters.

The Ulster Freedom Fighters pledged to track down and 'summarily execute' the two gunmen directly responsible and those who helped in Sunday night's attack when Joe Bratty and Raymond Elder died in a hail of automatic fire in the Ormeau Road area in the south of the city.

But in an ominous and unusual departure, the loyalist terror group's statement pointed out it had not gone 'unnoticed' that a hostile crowd in the predominantly Catholic area of the Lower Ormeau Road had hindered police efforts to arrest the gunmen after a high-speed chase.

A city councillor, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, said people in the Lower Ormeau Road area should move out for a week or a fortnight to escape the retaliatory attacks which he believed were inevitable. 'There will be psychopaths rambling around this city looking for revenge, and if people have caravans by the sea or wherever, then they should go there,' he said.

On the last occasion that senior loyalist figures were murdered - UVF commanders, Colin Craig and Trevor King, who were gunned down by the INLA in June - six Catholics were subsequently killed indiscriminately as they watched the World Cup in a bar at Loughinisland.

Yesterday, the area around where the IRA gunmen abandoned their car remained sealed off for much of the day so that the security forces could search houses, while just half a mile away at the scene of the shootings a growing mound of floral tributes for Mr Elder, 31, and Mr Bratty, 33, were piled against railings and taped to lampposts.

The family of Mr Elder also issued a statement denying that he was a UFF member, an assertion echoed by the organisation, or that he had been involved in the murder of five Catholics in a betting shop shooting in February 1992. He was charged with the murders, but the accusations were withdrawn through lack of evidence, a move that did nothing to prevent Republican terrorists staging a number of well-planned assassination attempts.

Mr Bratty had also survived a number of ambushes by the IRA and INLA, the most serious when he was wounded in the groin and hand. Before his death, Mr Bratty had told in a television interview of the continual stress of being a high-profile terrorist target because of Republicans' belief that he was involved in the betting shop shootings. 'I just had to pack up and move out of Belfast for my family's sake,' he said. 'I'm a marked man for life.'

Yesterday's UFF statement, which highlighted the hypocrisy of the IRA's peace overtures, failed to deny Mr Bratty was a member. He is widely believed to have been a local commander, as well as an Ulster Defence Association member. It vowed to avenge his death: 'Should it take a year, a month, or a week, those directly involved and those who aided and abetted in the murder of these loyalists will be . . . summarily executed. The actions of the Lower Ormeau Road concerned residents in aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the murders in their escape have not gone unnoticed.'