A loyalist paramilitary chief and his mother were both being questioned by police in Northern Ireland tonight after detectives launched a major operation against organised crime.
Andre Shoukri, leader of the Ulster Defence Association in north Belfast, was held when officers launched a series of swoops on homes across the city.
Three other men – at least one of them another senior UDA man – and Shoukri’s mother were also detained.
A senior security source confirmed: “This is an extremely significant operation.”
It is understood that a decision to hold another person under the police’s witness protection scheme was linked to the arrests, which involved officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s organised crime branch.
Houses in the Westlands estate in north Belfast as well as the Castlereagh area of east Belfast were searched.
During a visit to the loyalist Kilcooley housing estate in Bangor, Co Down, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said he did not think the arrests were specifically aimed at loyalists but were an attempt to tackle criminality and paramilitary activity.
“That doesn’t equate to loyalism,” he said.
“People shouldn’t be acting in a violent or criminal fashion. I understand that the arrests have been designed to stop that happening.”
Mr Hain added that it was vital that anyone involved in criminal or paramilitary activity, whether they were republican or loyalist, knew that the police would come after them.
“They have been doing that this morning and they will continue to do it, and they have my absolute 100% support.”