Troops sent back to streets of Belfast

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The Independent Online

Troops were being sent back on to the streets of Belfast last night after a close associate of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair was shot dead in a dangerously escalating feud between loyalist paramilitaries.

Troops were being sent back on to the streets of Belfast last night after a close associate of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair was shot dead in a dangerously escalating feud between loyalist paramilitaries.

He was one of two men killed by the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is now locked in a backstreet battle with Mr Adair's Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UFF had attacked and ransacked the homes of 20 or more UVF members and supporters.

Numerous other acts of violence took place in Belfast's loyalist heartland, the Shankill Road district, as it became clear that differences between the UVF and UFF had broken out into open warfare.

There were appeals for calm amid fears the dispute could undermine and destabilise the wider peace process, which has led to a radical reduction in the death rate in recent years.

The deployment of troops in the Shankill district for the first time in two years indicates that the authorities believe the loyalist violence is not over, and is all too likely to produce more casualties.

The associate of Mr Adair's who was killed was named locally as Jackie Coulter, who died with another loyalist Bobby Mahood. The men were sitting in a Land Rover outside a bookmaker's shop on the Crumlin Road on the edge of the Shankill district, when a gunmen appeared and fired eight or more shots at them.

Mr Adair and his chief political spokesman, John White, arrived at the scene of the shooting. Shortly afterwards, the UVF attacked a prison welfare office associated with the UFF, spraying the Shankill Road premises with bullets. In a speedy retaliation, a gang of UFF members ran to nearby offices occupied by the UVF's political wing and attacked it with hammers and other weapons. They eventually set fire to the building.

Police also made arrests after they were fired at in the district. Gangs of men associated with both groups could be seen roaming the streets as shopkeepers hurriedly closed their premises early in anticipation of more trouble.

Earlier in the day there had been talk of calling in a mediator to help settle the dispute between the two groups, but the deaths and other violence make it likely that, for some days at least, fighting is more likely than negotiations.

Billy Hutchinson, a UVF political spokesman, described the two killings as a tragedy but refused to condemn the attack saying: "Condemnation doesn't get us anywhere. People are angry and frustrated. He said he blamed the UFF "for bringing us to this".

The Shankill, one of Belfast's toughest districts, has over the decades provided thousands of recruits for loyalist paramilitary groups, of which the UFF and UVF are the largest. Although the UVF has been the more enthusiastic about the peace process, there is no significant ideological difference between the groups.

This means that men and youths have tended to join whichever group their friends belong to. This is turn means that fathers and sons, or brothers from the same family, may belong to different groups.

Although the district is large, everyone knows where everyone else lives, so the homes of UFF or UVF members are instantly available to be attacked at times such as this. Family connections and proximity mean that outbreaks of feuding are eventually settled, but the local macho culture means the two sides are first eager to exact vengeance.

The Tory Northern Ireland spokesman, Andrew Mackay, said the violence was a clear breach of the loyalist ceasefires and called on the Government to recall prisoners released early under the Good Friday Agreement. He added: "They should make a start by putting the likes of Johnny Adair back in prison where they belong."

Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: "This has got nothing to do with politics or the peace process. It is nothing less than squalid, murderous gang warfare ... It is about certain individuals trying to assert their personal control over communities and we are not going to have it. The police, with the full support of the army, will take all the measures they need to protect the public and maintain law and order."

The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said: "Nobody who is participating and organising this gives two hoots for God and Ulster. It is about who controls turf and who controls the drugs trade. It is something the Government should have highlighted and taken action to quell at a much earlier stage."

Chris McGimpsey, a Unionist councillor with an office on the Shankill Road, said: "This is a downward spiral. It's going to go down very fast and theimplications here could be devastating.

"We've got to get sanity back into the Shankill. This madness has got to stop. It's going to destroy a community."