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Irish gangland 'bloodbath' feared after leading criminal is killed

Police in the Republic of Ireland are struggling to cope with a rash of criminal underworld killings which has reached record levels.

This week's killings of a major drugs baron and an innocent bystander in Dublin mean that a total of 23 people have been shot dead this year, leading to public outcry and mounting political controversy. And authorities are bracing themselves for further violence, because the criminal who was murdered, Martin "Marlo" Hyland, was possibly Ireland's number one gangland figure. While he clearly had many enemies, he also had many associates who following his death may seek revenge and attempt to carve up the criminal empire he had built up in recent years.

Mr Hyland was killed by six shots fired from weapons fitted with silencers as he lay in bed in his niece's house. The killers also shot dead Anthony Campbell, a young apprentice plumber who had been working in the house at the time and who may have been a potential witness. Mr Campbell, 20, was described as an innocent young man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Few are shedding tears over the killing of Hyland, as he was known as a killer who had chosen his violent criminal lifestyle. The same applies to most of those who have been killed this year, since the majority of them were regarded as underworld figures.

But there has been an outpouring of emotion about Mr Campbell's murder, because the young man was not involved in the criminal world. And only last week, a Kilkenny postmaster was shot dead while pursuing a gunman who had robbed his post office.

With 21 people killed in gun crimes last year, the authorities have already assigned more police officers and resources to tackle violent organised crime. But the drugs world is awash with money - stashes totalling more than €23m (£15.5m) have been seized recently.

Michael McDowell, the Irish Justice Minister, has advocated longer jail sentences and called on judges to "get real" with the killers, who he denounced as "ruthless savages".

The Hyland attack illustrated that many shootings now appear to be contract killings. Hyland varied his movements and the places where he slept, but his killers seem to have carried out careful surveillance and knew his exact movements.

The opposition TD, Fine Gael's Jim O'Keeffe, said: "The shooting dead of such a prominent criminal presents the horrific prospect of an all-out bloodbath in gangland. The aggrieved party [Mr Hyland's associates] will now probably seek revenge on the perpetrators, and I am fearful of the consequences."