Belfast bomb signals rising tension in loyalist feud

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The Independent Online

The funeral yesterday of a murder victim followed by a bombing in inner-city Belfast signalled that a lethal feud between two sets of loyalist paramilitaries is set to continue.

The funeral yesterday of a murder victim followed by a bombing in inner-city Belfast signalled that a lethal feud between two sets of loyalist paramilitaries is set to continue.

The bombing took place near a bar that is a well-known haunt of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which for the past week has been locked in a feud with the rival Loyalist Volunteer Force. The Army has been redeployed in some hardline loyalist areas of Belfast in the hope of damping down the latest outbreak of feuding between the Protestant groups.

The troops, not normally seen on the streets of the city in recent years, are augmenting police patrols in east Belfast. But both factions have scores of activists and the security forces know they have little hope of preventing further violence.

Yesterday's funeral was that of Brian Stewart, a 34-year-old LVF member who was shot in the east of the city by UVF gunmen last Tuesday. Within hours of the ceremony a device exploded in the Ravenhill Road area of east Belfast in territory associated with the UVF. No one was reported injured.

Both organisations have been responsible for a number of killings in recent years, with the UVF also involved in smuggling, robbery and extortion although not in drug-dealing. By contrast, according to a recent report by the Independent Monitoring Commission: "LVF members are deeply involved in criminality, primarily in the illegal drugs trade."

The murder of Mr Stewart was the first public sign of the latest outbreak of UVF-LVF feuding, but according to loyalist sources it was preceded by several weeks of rising tension. The usually reliable sources said the sequence of events began when UVF members confronted a LVF man who was selling drugs at a school. Their intervention was followed by LVF attacks on UVF homes and a car.

A number of senior figures in the UVF and its political wing, the Progressive Unionist Party, were then warned by police that the LVF was targeting them and possibly planning an attack on a bar. Those who received warnings included David Ervine, who represents the PUP in the Belfast Assembly. The UVF retaliated by killing Mr Stewart and activists staged bomb attacks on the homes of LVF figures and fired shots into an east Belfast house.

The UVF and LVF, as well as the Ulster Defence Association, have been involved in vicious feuding many times over the past few years. The LVF was founded in 1996 by Billy "King Rat" Wright after he was expelled from the UVF. Wright was shot dead by republicans in the Maze prison in 1998 but the organisation has remained in existence in the Portadown area and parts of Belfast, becoming more heavily involved in the drug trade.

The recent violence has been condemned by both unionist and nationalist politicians, and there have been offers of mediation from a number of sources.

Northern Ireland has so far had a relatively peaceful year, with two killings, a reduction in its usual death toll. But there are fears that the loyalist feud will heighten tensions generally, increasing the chances of a summer blighted by violence.

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