A loyalist paramilitary chief was fighting for his life tonight after assassins struck near north Belfast.
Mark Haddock (aged 37), who is living under a witness protection scheme, was shot up to eight times close to the home where he had been living in fear of an attack by former associates.
The victim, a top Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) man, was gunned down in the Mossley estate, Newtownabbey.
He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where he was tonight critically ill.
Haddock had been out on bail while on trial for attempted murder charges.
A judge has been considering the case against him for an attack on a nightclub doorman close to the scene of the shooting. His former colleagues in the UVF are the chief suspects.
The burly loyalist, who once controlled the Mount Vernon estate, a UVF stronghold in north Belfast, is believed to have staggered to a neighbour’s house seeking help.
He had been living in fear for months after many of his closest allies turned against him.
As forensics experts scoured the scene for clues, loyalist sources claimed it was only a matter of time before Haddock was attacked.
“He was a marked man. Things hadn’t looked good for him for some time,” one said.
Another at the scene claimed: “It looks like an organisation cleansing itself.”
Haddock had denied trying to kill bouncer Trevor Gowdy, who was found unconscious in the Monkstown estate in Newtownabbey in December 2002.
Mr Gowdy was attacked with an iron bar and a hatchet.
The trial began at Belfast Crown Court last year but was halted after Mr Gowdy broke down in the witness box in November and was deemed medically unfit to give evidence.
Earlier this month Mr Gowdy was given permission to testify against Haddock from a secret location in England.
The victim feared he would be killed if he returned to the North for the trial.
Originally based in the fiercely loyalist Mount Vernon area of north Belfast, Haddock has long been suspected of being a senior UVF commander.
He was also questioned by police about the murder in 1997 of former RAF man Raymond McCord Jnr – whose killing is the focus of an investigation by Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s office.
Mr McCord (aged 22) was beaten to death and his body dumped at a quarry.
The Ombudsman’s file on the murder of Raymond McCord Jnr is due to be published in the next month or so.
The office of the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast will decide if anyone should face criminal charges.
The inquiry is the biggest ever carried out by Nuala O’Loan’s officers and at the centre of the investigation are claims that agents operating on behalf of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch were involved in a series of sectarian murders linked to the UVF.
Unionist and loyalist sources were anxiously looking for signs as to who was behind the shooting which came exactly two weeks after the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group accepted Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader David Ervine into their ranks.
Mr Ervine’s party is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force.
UUP leader Sir Reg Empey has been criticised by the rival Democratic Unionists, by nationalist parties and the cross community Alliance Party for linking up with the PUP leader in the Assembly.
Both Empey and Ervine explained the move was designed to ensure there was a majority of unionist ministers on the next Stormont Executive, reducing Sinn Féin’s cabinet posts from three to two.
UUP sources had also hinted the party’s link up with Mr Ervine was in anticipation of moves by the UVF later this year addressing the future of the paramilitary group.
The Democratic Unionist MP for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds, expressed his shock at the shooting.
“This is an appalling incident which will be condemned by all right thinking people,” he said.
“Regardless of circumstances no one has the right to take the law into their own hands and I would call upon anyone with information to assist the police in order to bring those responsible to justice.”
Sinn Féin said tonight there would be suspicions about the shooting, suggesting it could have been state sponsored.
North Belfast Assembly member Gerry Kelly, the party justice spokesman, said it was widely accepted Haddock had been working for Special Branch for many years.
“An inquiry into collusion between the Mount Vernon UVF and the Special Branch is currently being conducted by the Police Ombudsman and is due to be published next month.
“Mark Haddock is at the centre of this inquiry. Given this many people will be rightly suspicious of both the timing and the motivation behind this shooting,” he said.
Mr Kelly added: “There is a clear pattern of former British agents being killed in circumstances like this just as allegations of collusion or other activities are about to be exposed, as was the case of those involved in the murder of Pat Finucane.”
Ulster Unionist Assembly member Roy Beggs Jnr, condemned the shooting.
“There can be no place for this kind of activity in right-thinking society,” he said.
He called for anyone with information to immediately contact the police.
“The perpetrators of this barbaric act must be swiftly taken off the streets and subjected to the fullest rigour of the law,” he said.