A loyalist paramilitary chief is fighting for his life today after assassins struck near north Belfast.
Mark Haddock, 37, 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 man and suspected drug dealer, was gunned down in the Mossley estate, Newtownabbey, yesterday.
He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where he is critically ill.
Police are appealing for witnesses and are trying to trace the movements of a black Peugeot 309 that may have been seen in the area around the time it happened.
Haddock had been out on bail while on trial for attempted murder. A judge has been considering the case against him for a savage 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, who is living under a witness protection scheme, 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, 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.
But it is the office of the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast which will decide if anyone should face criminal charges.
The inquiry is the biggest ever carried out by Nuala O’Loan’s officers. 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 leader David Ervine into their ranks.
Mr Ervine’s party is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force.
UUP leader 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 Mr Empey and Mr 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.
Sinn Féin said 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.
He said: “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.”
The Democratic Unionist MP for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds, said: “This is an appalling incident which will be condemned by all right thinking people.”
Ulster Unionist Assembly member Roy Beggs Jnr, added: “There can be no place for this kind of activity in right-thinking society.”