Belfast Telegraph

UDA rampage in Larne: They swarmed in, swinging baseball bats and hammers

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

A widowed pensioner curled into a ball and covered her ears as dozens of masked thugs tore her neighbour's home apart.

Minutes earlier she had watched in terror as a gang clutching bats and hammers poured into the estate in which she has lived her entire life.

Children's toys, televisions and smashed-up living-room furniture were strewn across the front gardens of three properties, 12 hours after the gang wreaked havoc.

Red, white and blue kerbstones mark the entrance to Ferris Park, a staunchly loyalist estate of terraced houses close to the centre of Larne.

Those behind the cowardly attacks ironically style themselves as the custodians of the community in which they sparked terror as families gathered to mark Mother's Day.

Senior police officers backed up claims that Sunday's so-called show of strength by the renegade South-East Antrim UDA was the organisation's idea of putting down a marker to dissenters.

Two houses, belonging to brothers, were gutted at Ferris Avenue and another destroyed a short time later at Knockdhu Park, one mile away. A resident in that property was beaten with a hammer as he fought in vain to protect his family.

Yesterday morning, many of those living in both estates surveyed the damage caused hours before, and reflected on the terrifying ordeal they had endured.

An hour prior to the attacks, police received reports of large groups of masked men gathering in Carrickfergus, roughly 10 miles away.

"The assessment was they were probably meeting in Carrickfergus to go on somewhere else," Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said yesterday.

"Police identified a number of possibilities, based on recent rises in tension across east Antrim. About an hour later, we had the first attack on a house in Larne and police responded to that within three minutes."

Two patrol cars arrived at the scene at around 8.40pm.

Fifteen minutes later 25 riot police arrived, backed up with another public order unit minutes later.

Residents told how their housing estate was turned into a battleground with groups of armed and masked men running amok for up to 15 minutes.

The three houses attacked were completely gutted; windows were shattered and furniture smashed into pieces.

One car had every panel dented and window broken, with eyewitnesses telling how yobs jumped up and down on its roof.

Many were critical of the police response, with officers forced back by the mob when they first arrived in the area.

An elderly pensioner who lives close to one of the houses at Ferris Avenue said she looked out her window to see dozens of men approach in the direction of her home.

She said she ran to the back of her house as men wielding bats and sledgehammers smashed their way into the adjoining property.

"There was just crashing and yelling, it was awful," she said.

"I was closing my blinds when they just all started coming towards the house.

"I've lived here all of my life and I've never seen anything like it. It was like a horror film, I was terrified."

Another neighbour said such attacks were rare.

"The UDA used to have marches on the street but there was never any trouble," he said.

"Last night was frightening."

Pointing to one of the properties, which had smashed living-room furniture strewn across the front lawn, he added: "That couple are the first people you would go to if you needed something.

"Their wee girl is about 15. She was hysterical, running round the estate afterwards looking for her wee dog.

"Those who did this are scum, they're not loyalists."

There were conflicting theories for what sparked Sunday's attacks. Some pointed to six arrests of UDA-linked individuals in the previous week. They have been charged with offences such as threats to kill, intimidation and criminal damage.

Tensions were also said to have risen following an altercation between a group of men in the area on Saturday.

"It's extremely worrying how quickly these guys were able to mobilise and the numbers they had," one policing source told this newspaper.

"I remember similar incidents a decade ago involving the UDA, so this isn't a case of social media being used to rally numbers.

"What is also alarming is that despite the numbers involved, police had no intelligence beforehand about what was happening."

Police accused those responsible of being on a "power-trip".

Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said of those involved: "These groups seem to want to have some power or legitimacy within communities and it's very important that the community themselves don't do anything to give legitimacy to these groups.

"There are ways of dealing with tensions and with difficulties within communities."

He said extra resources have been put in place in the area following Sunday's outbreak of trouble.

Last week a half-marathon attracted thousands to Larne, are the eyes of the world are set to be on the town in May as the Giro d'Italia passes through.

Retail chiefs said the negative publicity from ongoing paramilitary attacks was devastating for traders.

Glyn Roberts, chair of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said he was "disgusted" by the acts of "mindless thugs".

He added: "Local traders are working hard to improve the town and don't need these sort of bad headlines."

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