BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- It was a killing like hundreds of others over the past 25 years in Northern Ireland: A group of gunmen approached a man repairing a car on a Belfast street, shot him dead and fled.
The victim was Roman Catholic; the killers were suspected members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, an avowedly Protestant paramilitary group.
But for politicians and church leaders here, the bluntly sectarian killing Thursday -- the first blood spilled since the Irish Republican Army declared its unilateral cease-fire 24 hours earlier -- was less a shock than a coldblooded reminder of how distant any real or lasting peace is in the divided province.
Still, in a vote of confidence and an expression of hope that peace will hold, President Clinton promised yesterday to increase U.S. aid greatly both to Ireland and to Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, vowed yesterday that the IRA would not be provoked into breaking its commitment to its cease-fire.
But the leaders of the province's militant Protestant paramilitaries have said nothing about their own long-term intentions to either abide by the truce or step up the violence against Catholic and Republican targets.
"There is, among these men, a lot of apprehension and uncertainty, and I don't believe they know themselves yet what they will do," said the Rev. Roy McGhee, a Presbyterian pastor who keeps lines of communication open to the secretive Protestant paramilitary groups that have grown in both size and menace in recent years.
The one thing that is certain, he said, is that whenever the Loyalist community feels its back is against the wall, the rosters of the outlawed militant organizations swell.
According to police estimates, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, which took responsibility for the killing Thursday, has a hard-core membership of about 500 to 600 and the rival Ulster Volunteer Force has about 350 to 500 members.
Northern Ireland's majority Protestants are feeling very much on the defensive these days.
While only the smallest and most militant minority of the Protestant population favors a resort to violence, there is at nearly every level a palpable suspicion and fear, a growing conviction that the IRA cease-fire is the latest step in some much larger, undefined conspiracy directed at loosening Ulster's ties to London.
In this view, it is Ulster against what they call the pan-Irish republican movement, from the IRA and the Irish-American lobby to the Dublin politicians, each of them abetted by a weak and duplicitous British government that wouldn't mind shedding the enormous cost -- about $5.1 billion this year alone, twice what it was in 1989 -- of keeping the troubled province afloat.
"I am a British subject, not an Irish one," said Jean Arbuthot, TC 48-year-old woman taking her grandson for a walk in the Shankill yesterday. "I say we have been betrayed by London. Why else would the IRA have called a cease-fire?"
Even as the British government insists there will be no constitutional change in Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of people who live there, the militant Protestants see fresh signs of double-dealing, like London's grudging acknowledgment last year, after repeated and persistent denials, that it had engaged in secret talks with the IRA.
Thursday, their ire was raised again by reports that four Republican prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses had been suddenly moved from jails in England to Northern Ireland, to be closer to home. The British said no deal was made; the Loyalists don't believe it.
And in a poll published yesterday by the Belfast Telegraph and reported by the Associated Press, only 30 percent of those questioned -- and just 9 percent of Protestants -- thought the cease-fire would hold. The margin of error for the poll was not given.