Several hundred loyalists staged a rally in Belfast on Saturday night in a ‘show of strength’ amid trouble between rival factions in the unionist paramilitary UDA.
The rally came after guns, ammunition and petrol bombs were seized by PSNI during searches aimed at defusing the situation caused by attempts to replace the UDA leadership in north Belfast.
Shots were also reported to have been fired in the area.
On Friday UDA members loyal to the organisation’s ruling ‘inner council’ said they had elected a new north Belfast leadership to replace Andre and Ihab Shoukri.
The statement said the UDA in north Belfast had elected an interim ‘brigade staff’ accepted by the ‘inner council’ and called for all remaining members in the area to disassociate themselves from the Shoukris.
Later a statement from Shoukri supporters claimed their leadership remained in place.
Also on Friday, UDA members loyal to the Shoukris were reported to have assaulted several UDA members in the Ballysillan area of north Belfast who had decided to accept the ruling of the leadership.
As the stand-off continued, the UDA’s inner council mobilised a so-called ‘show of strength’ in west Belfast.
A statement read out on Saturday said: “There were members who used their position to achieve personal gain and fortune, especially through drug trafficking and drug sales.
“This has resulted in those ex-loyalists attempting to protect their fiefdoms by whatever means available to them.
“The organisation will not stand by and allow its community and its members to be attacked after 35 years of conflict with the Provisional IRA and republicans.
“We have fought the IRA, the RUC and our own army. If need be we will fight drug dealers.
“We believe that it’s the duty of the PSNI to influence law and order so we can all live in peace and safety.”
Frankie Gallagher, of the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which represents the UDA in talks, said the rally was held “to demonstrate that the UDA is capable and willing to defend its people and its communities but at the same time reluctant to go back”.