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escalation Loyalists to ramp up protocol violence by targeting buildings used by Irish Government in north

Security is set to be stepped up a south Belfast building used by Irish Government officials

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The scene of the hoax bomb on Friday

The scene of the hoax bomb on Friday

The scene of the hoax bomb on Friday

Attacks on political offices and buildings in Northern Ireland associated with the Irish government are expected to continue as loyalists escalate their campaign against the protocol.

Security is set to be stepped up at the south Belfast property used by Irish government civil servants when they are working in Northern Ireland.

It comes after Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney fled a peace-building event in north Belfast on Friday after the UVF forced a driver to transport what turned out to be a hoax bomb to the car park of the Houben Centre where the minister was delivering a speech.

A senior loyalist source said they still had access to weapons, some held back from decommissioning and others that have been obtained in recent years.

They also have a small number of RPG rocket launchers. The rocket launchers were part of a shipment that included VZ58s rifles and hand grenades smuggled into Belfast, via Liverpool, in 1987. They were taken to a farmhouse in Co Armagh to be divided among the three paramilitary groups — the UVF, UDA and the Ulster Resistance.

The UDA lost its share of the cache almost immediately, when a convoy of cars stuffed with rifles and ammunition was halted at a police roadblock.

About half of the weapons that the UVF took away from the farmhouse were also recovered, after a tip-off led police to a house in north Belfast, but the rest remained under the group’s control.

A large portion of the Ulster Resistance weapons were never recovered. With the paramilitary groups on ceasefire since 1994, it was thought the weapons were silenced forever, but now sources say they could be used for attacks on properties associated with the Irish government and offices of politicians who “prop up the protocol”.

There is no suggestion that there is any direct threat to life of any individual, with loyalist sources saying it will be buildings and not people that will be targeted.

The targeting of Mr Coveney on Friday in north Belfast marked a dramatic escalation in loyalist opposition to the protocol. A funeral service at nearby Holy Cross church was also disrupted.

Loyalist sources warned that the bomb alert was just the start of a renewed campaign against the protocol. It will include disrupting any event that has representatives of the Irish government in attendance.

The palatial Notting Hill property used by senior Irish government officials and dignitaries is now also on the loyalist radar.

Friday’s bomb alert, during which an electrician was threatened at gunpoint and ordered to drive what he thought was a bomb to the event in the Houben Centre, was sanctioned at the highest level of the UVF.

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Other options are also being discussed, with the UDA expected to escalate their campaign against the protocol in the coming weeks.

A senior loyalist source said: “Loyalists are reluctant travellers down this path and really just want the protocol sorted, not a protracted campaign, but in the absence of any movement then other attacks will happen. Loyalists retain a small number of RPGs which could be directed at a symbolic Irish government building,” the source added.

At the weekend, the man forced at gunpoint to drive his van to the event told how he feared he would be blown to pieces.

The electrician, who is in his 40s, said: “I wasn’t caring for myself. My priority was saving people.”

He man recalled how he was confronted by two gunmen, their faces covered in scarves, and had a gun pointed at his head.

He said: “I thought they were initially going to kill me. I thought I was just another contractor targeted. I told them to let me go, just take the van.”

The man added: “I was stuck in the middle seat, the other had the gun pointing at me. They told me if I didn’t carry the job out there is a car following and there was a guarantee I would be shot. They said, ‘We know who you are and where we can get you’.’’

Once in the grounds the electrician rushed to alert guests.

“I tried my best to make sure there were no deaths,’’ he said.

A 38-year-old woman arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm in suspicious circumstances, possessing criminal property and concealing criminal property by police investigating Friday’s incident was later released on police bail pending further enquires. Officers carried out searches in the Ballysillan and Springmartin areas of north and west Belfast on Saturday evening.

A 41-year old-man arrested under the Terrorism Act was still being questioned in custody last night.

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