Soldier on covert mission in Belfast shot loyalist: Wounding follows rise in security to reduce terrorism in Protestant community. David McKittrick reports

AN UNDERCOVER soldier shot and wounded a loyalist man during a covert military intelligence operation in the Shankill Road area of west Belfast on Wednesday night, it emerged yesterday.

The plainclothes soldier was challenged by a number of loyalists as he was involved in a covert surveillance operation. In an ensuing confrontation he is believed to have fired five shots, slightly injuring one man.

The incident has arisen from a significant increase in security force surveillance on prominent loyalist figures in an attempt to reduce the level of activity of extreme Protestant groups. In recent years the loyalists have been responsible for more casualties than the IRA in Northern Ireland and of late the RUC and Army have been taking measures to keep down the level of loyalist killings.

The man at the centre of the latest incident was Johnny Adair, 29, who is prominent in Shankill Road loyalist circles. Mr Adair has said in the past that he has been questioned by the RUC about serious crime but never convicted of a terrorist offence.

According to local sources, the soldier was challenged by Mr Adair and two other men after he had passed his house on up to six occasions. The loyalist, in a BBC television interview in which his face was not shown, gave this version of the soldier's actions: 'He turned round to his left, produced a gun and started firing at me. I hit the deck, got on to my feet and ran. He continued to fire at my two friends. I ran round the corner for about 500 yards till the shooting stopped.'

One man was hit twice, suffering a wound to his hand and a graze to the stomach. He claimed he might have been more seriously injured had not one bullet hit a key and been deflected. A brief RUC statement said that the soldier was not in uniform but was on duty and had discharged a number of shots.

Several dozen other major loyalist figures have for some months been the subject of intense security force surveillance. Security force tactics have included arrests, house searches and following the loyalists, either overtly or by undercover means.

Plainclothes Army and police personnel have much more freedom to deploy such methods in Protestant districts rather than in republican areas, where they are in danger of being spotted and killed by the IRA.

The new high level of activity in Protestant districts clearly carries increased dangers, however. On one occasion recently a bomb was thrown at police as they were searching the home of a loyalist. In another a member of E4A, the RUC's chief surveillance unit, was identified by loyalists who beat him up and stole his gun.

Although loyalists have been active this year, for example killing six Catholics last week, the violent Protestants have not been able to sustain the attacks of 'undreamt-of ferocity' which they promised at the start of the year.

As well as receiving security force attentions, Mr Adair is clearly a priority target for the IRA, who regard him as a leading member of the illegal Ulster Defence Association. In recent months he has twice survived republican attempts on his life; in one of these his car was riddled with bullets but he was unhurt.

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