A young Catholic postman was shot dead early yesterday morning as he arrived for work at a sorting office on the outskirts of Belfast.
The city had been enjoying its first period of relative calm after two nights of rioting by loyalists and nationalists in the Ardoyne.
The killing was condemned by leading politicians including First Minister David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who called for calm and restraint.
John Reid, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: "We cannot let those who cling to hate-filled violence cast Northern Ireland back into the darkness."
Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern called for a crackdown on loyalist terrorists who have been responsible for two-thirds of recent shootings and other violent incidents. "The statistics also show there have been few or no arrests. That is worrying," he said.
Gunmen with scarves across their faces ambushed the 20-year-old postal worker after he parked outside the Royal Mail office in the loyalist area of Rathcoole at 4.55am. They fired several shots at close range before racing away in a silver Renault 19, which was later found on fire. Their victim died two hours later in the Mater Hospital, Belfast.
The Red Hand Defenders – a name used by paramilitaries in the Ulster Defence Association and the Loyalist Volunteer Force in the past – said they had killed the man, who had a partner and a baby daughter.
Dr Reid said: "Everyone in Northern Ireland has to confront the struggle between peace and hatred. It is a struggle people of goodwill in both communities must and will win."
"At the end of a sickening week," said Cllr Alban Maginness of the SDLP, "this is the most sickening event of all."
Staff at the Mallusk sorting office in Co Antrim walked out when they heard the news.
Det Supt Roy Suitters, leading the murder investigation, said the killers had been lying in wait: "This poor fellow has obviously been targeted as a Catholic working in a loyalist estate and for no other reason."Reuse content