Fears of loyalist massacre prompt return of troops

British soldiers are ordered back onto the streets of Belfast to calm violent feuding between the UFF and UVF groups
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The Independent Online

The return of British troops to the streets of Belfast is an indication of how seriously the authorities feel the security situation has deteriorated during violent clashes between the rival loyalist groups.

The return of British troops to the streets of Belfast is an indication of how seriously the authorities feel the security situation has deteriorated during violent clashes between the rival loyalist groups.

The sight of soldiers on combat patrol in the city has always been an emotive issue and the Army had scaled down its presence in the province since the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from a three-day period during the Drumcree crisis last year, troops have not been seen on the streets of Belfast since September 1998.

Bill Stewart, Assistant Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), said in a statement yesterday. "Given the weekend's events in the Shankhill area and today's horrific murder of two men, I have requested, and the Army have agreed to, the deployment of soldiers to support the work of police in the city." He said tensions were running high but hoped the reintroduction of troops would be only "a short-term measure".

It is believed that senior RUC officers decided to ask for the troops because of fears that the two opposing loyalist groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, are preparing to use the substantial fire power they possess in the escalating feud. Intelligence reports suggest that the UFF, in particular, may be moving weaponry from arms dumps.

The Army has contingency plans prepared to deploy troops in Northern Ireland at short notice from its spearhead battalions, despite the commitment overseas in places like Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

Around 1,000 soldiers were moved to the province in the run up to the 1998 Drumcree march and 2,000 were drafted in during this year's parade. However, that kind of public order role at a perennial flashpoint is regarded in the province as quite different from combat patrols in the heart of Belfast.

As well as being a visible presence on the streets, the soldiers would be taking up strategic vantage points they had used in the past to confront gunmen in both the loyalist and nationalist communities. They could also be used to carry out searches of vehicles on roadblocks around troublespots. The troops would be at hand to answer any calls for help from the RUC, if the police come under fire.

The reintroduction of British forces to contain an internecine loyalist feud will be seen as ironic by the nationalists. Although troops were first sent into the province to protect Catholic areas from attacks by loyalist mobs, the republicans have been the main adversaries of the Army during the recent troubles.

Earlier this year the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, caused considerable controversy by saying the continued presence of British troops in the border areas was a source of "harassment and annoyance"to nationalist communities.

At the beginning of this month, the demolition of the Borucki Sangar, a key Army observation post in Crossmaglen, South Armagh, which could house 200 troops in the heart of what was known as the IRA's "bandit country", was seen as a vote of confidence in the peace process.

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