Fears for the Northern Ireland peace process mounted today amid threats of bloody reprisals after Irish republicans shot dead a Protestant guerrilla chief imprisoned in the top security Maze jail.
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam on Saturday joined the Irish government and others in urging people to stay off the streets after the killing.
But a hard-line pro-British splinter guerrilla group threatened to unleash a campaign of violence in retaliation for the assassination of its leader.
Billy Wright, 37, known as "King Rat," was shot five times in the back Saturday by prisoners who were members of the Irish National Liberation Army. Prison officers said they got onto a roof of the jail and fired at Wright, chief of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, while he was being escorted to the visitors center.
Within hours of his murder, security was tightened across the province as two buses and a car were set on fire -- possible evidence of a Protestant backlash.
Late Saturday, police said several people were injured in a shooting attack near the Glengannon Hotel in Dungannon, but said they did not know if the incident was linked to Wright's slaying.
Initial reports were that several people had been injured and had been taken to hospitals.
Despite appeals for restraint, the Loyalist Volunteer Force issued a statement warning that it would avenge Wright's death.
Ms. Mowlam told reporters the murder at the prison, which she called a "very serious lapse in security," had the potential to wreck the fragile peace process.
Peace talks got under way in earnest in September when Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, was admitted for the first time. But progress has been painfully slow.
Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney told Irish radio it was vital for Protestants and Catholics and for the peace process to avoid any overreaction to the killing.
But Ken Maginnis of the mainly Protestant Ulster Unionist party, who sits in the British parliament, accused Ms. Mowlam of failing in her responsibility for Northern Ireland's prisons.
"We've got to question her competence and why we have such chaos within our high security prisons. Is it not laughable, and should she not be held to account?" he told Britain's Sky News.
The Irish National Liberation Army on Saturday admitted responsibility for the murder in a statement issued to the media in Belfast. It also warned Protestant paramilitaries not to carry out attacks against the Republican community.
Northern Ireland politicians appealed for cool heads shortly after the shooting while security forces fearing reprisals closed off roads in Belfast between Loyalist and Republican strongholds.
The Maze houses more than 600 prisoners from the conflict over British rule of Northern Ireland.
Police said three members of the Irish National Liberation Army, which opposes the current cease-fire by the mainstream IRA, surrendered to police after the shooting. Two weapons were handed over.
Wright, one of the most feared Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, was serving an eight-year term for perverting the course of justice.
He had previously survived six republican assassination attempts.
His LVF guerrilla group is held responsible for several sectarian murders, but he also was feared by rival Protestant extremist groups who last year issued him with an ultimatum to leave the country or face death after he defied orders to abandon violence.
An inquiry was under way into how a weapon was smuggled into the jail, where security has been criticized as lax several times in the past year.