LIMERICK CITY GUN WARFARE: CRIME GANGS' SNIPER THREAT; Gardai fear bloodbath as rebel republicans arm drug barons with rifles.
GARDAI fear a bloodbath as Limerick's crime gangs turn to sniper rifles in a bid to win the turf war feud.
Tensions in the city have reached breaking point after the conviction of five men for the murder of Kieran Keane.
Now Limerick's most senior police officer has warned about the terrifying arsenal in the hands of the drug barons.
Even though 24 alleged gang members are now in custody, revenge attacks are a certainty.
The city has become so lawless gardai are being attacked as they try to police the danger zones.
And dissident republicans are arming the thugs with sophisticated weapons such as telescopic sight rifles, grenades and car bombs.
Chief Supt Gerry Kelly said: "I have to be worried about the level of firepower. I'm worried about it in relation to the safety of my own staff.
"They are out there every day. Even in recent weeks a number of our young gardai have been badly assaulted by some of the thugs around here.
"The only way you are going to remove that threat is to bring them before the courts and have the legal system deal with it.
"We've had a number of successes in relation to weaponry and convictions and presently we have approximately 24 people in custody, some finished in relation to their trials and others awaiting trial and these are all allegedly linked to the feuds.
"Our operations on a day-to-day basis are particularly targeted at suspected gang activity and I think we are having success .
"It's really intelligence driven. The criminals have been very resourceful in their use of weaponry.
"We've had such diverse weapons as long-range rifles, we've had anti-car devices, we've recovered hand grenades, and they have the short weapons.
"They are now good at adapting weapons to suit themselves."
The battle for control of the drug trade has taken a new twist with gang members being trained by terrorists to take out enemies with sniper rifles.
Chief Supt Kelly added: "We do know that they are looking for rifles for long shots in relation to targeting people at a distance which is incredibly worrying.
"A lot of these weapons that are being seized are being stolen from around the country and people who have high-calibre weapons should have them locked up, and if they don't they shouldn't have them.
"The high-calibre weapons are wanted for sniper type attacks.
"That's why those particular weapons are required.
"The weapons come from a number of sources. The sawn-off shotguns are all legitimately held guns that are stolen and sawn down.
"The rifles are possibly the same although perhaps not as much. Somebody with a deerhunter's licence would really crave those type of weapons.
"The sophisticated handguns are coming from what I would describe as military sources, suppliers coming right through into the criminal system.
"There is a big question mark over the involvement of dissident republican groups in supplying some of them.
"Our intelligence work indicates they are involved in that area and that's what we are targeting.
"Money is driving these people, that's what it's all about.
"It's going to take time. It's not going to be solved overnight."
Junior Justice Minister Willie O'Dea made an impassioned plea for peace - to avoid revenge attacks that are dragging the city into lawlessness. And he praised the brave gardai putting their lives on the line.
He said: "The gardai are the unsung heroes here. The weaponry is awesome which gives some idea of the challenge they are facing in Limerick.
"The message I want to give to the people involved is two-fold.
"By involving yourself in retaliation you are perpetuating this grisly dance of death, you are perpetuating the feud and by perpetuating the feud you are putting yourselves in the firing line.
"The second point is that there is a strong chance that people involved in this sort of criminality will ultimately be brought before the courts and if convicted locked away for the best part of their lives."
Five men were jailed for life on Saturday evening for murdering Keane.
They were Dessie Dundon, 20, David "Frog Eyes" Stanners, 31, James McCarthy, 24, Christopher "Smokie" Costello and Anthony "Noddy" McCarthy, 21.
Keane's nephew Owen Treacy - whose evidence was vital in jailing the men - is now under 24-hour garda protection.
And there was a sign of the trouble to come as Noddy McCarthy was being led away in handcuffs, he shouted: 'For every action there's a reaction - remember that."
Last night, Garda Supt Gerry Mahon - who led the Kieran Keane murder inquiry - said it was the biggest murder probe in the city since Det Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead in June 1996.
He added: "This can only be put on a par with the Jerry McCabe investigation in terms of the man power involved and the sheer volume of work.
"To have convictions in less than 11 months since the murder took place is extremely satisfactory and of course the outcome has meant that the most dangerous criminals are now off the streets of Limerick for several years to come."
In addition to the five men jailed at the weekend for Kieran Keane's murder, there are 21 other people - allegedly connected to the same bloody feud - currently in custody either awaiting trial or already convicted of feud-related activities.
Earlier this year, Paul Coffey was jailed for 15 years after he was convicted of the manslaughter of criminal Eddie Ryan, shot dead in the Moose Bar in Limerick in November 2000.
In June, cousins Ross Cantillon and Roy Woodland were sentenced to seven years in jail after a conviction for possession of an Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifle.
Two other men - Noel Price and Michael Stanners - were convicted at Limerick Circuit Court of a petrol bomb attack on the home of Philip Treacy in Clonlara, Co Clare, and are currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.
Four men are still in custody following an arms seizure in Mungret outside Limerick in which a sub-machine gun and bomb components were found.
Another man is in custody following alleged intimidation of a relative of the key witness in the Kieran Keane murder trial while two others are in custody for possession of fire- arms.
Meanwhile, Kieran Keane's older brother Christy is currently serving a 10-year jail sentence following a conviction for possession of drugs with intent to supply.
David Stanners; DEADLY: Gangs are now being trained to use sniper rifles; MURDERERS; James McCarthy; Anthony McCarthy; Christopher Costello; Dessie Dundon; VICTIM: Kieran Keane's murder sparked a gangland war in Limerick; VERDICT: Keane's wife Sophie, left, leaving court on Saturday night