Feared loyalist paramilitary boss Johnny Adair today showed his support for a close associate who appeared in court on gun charges.
Andre Shoukri, 25, a commander of the Ulster Defence Association in north Belfast, was captured by police during a major security operation in the city.
He is accused of possessing a semi-automatic pistol and 30 rounds of ammunition along with another man, 39-year-old William McCullough.
Both Shoukri, of Sunningdale Gardens, and McCullough from Mackey Street, were remanded in custody to appear again via video link on October 21.
Security was tight as the public gallery at Laganside Magistrates’ Court in Belfast was filled with friends of the two men.
Adair, wearing a light blue checked shirt and a floppy sun hat, sat in the front row alongside Shoukri’s brother.
The two UDA chiefs have forged close links since Shoukri was appointed as one of the six commanders who sit on that organisation’s ruling inner council just a matter of months ago.
As he was being led from the dock today he was greeted by a round of applause and cheers from his supporters, including Adair, the Ulster Freedom Fighters’ leader who returned to the streets of Belfast earlier this year after being given a 16 year sentence for directing terrorism.
Shoukri, whose father is Egyptian, smiled and gave a thumbs up signal.
Along with McCullough, he was arrested when police swooped on a car in the Rathcoole Estate on the outskirts of north Belfast on Saturday.
The staunchly Protestant heartland is ruled by loyalist paramilitaries.
But with fears of a deadly new feud erupting between the rival organisations over who controls the lucrative drugs market, police have launched a major new offensive.
Tensions spiralled after Stephen Warnock, a prominent Loyalist Volunteer Force member and known narcotics dealer, was shot dead in Newtownards, Co Down, 10 days ago.
East Belfast UDA leader Jim Gray escaped death when he was shot in the face days later in a reprisal attack.
It was as part of the police operation that the two men who appeared in court today were seized.
A detective constable told the court that when charged Shoukri made no reply.
After he was accused McCullough said: “I was completely unaware of the firearm or ammunition.”
The detective said he believed he could connect both men with the charge.
A lawyer for both of the accused then insisted that his clients should be presumed innocent until proven guilty by the courts.
He added: “We are concerned that there’s been an amount of speculation and adverse comment which could prejudicially affect their chances of a fair trial.”