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2000: Loyalist killer Michael Stone freed from Maze

Loyalist paramilitary hitman Michael Stone has been released from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

He was given a 684-year sentence in 1989 for six murders and five attempted murders, but has been set free as part of the Good Friday peace agreement.

Stone, 45, became a leader of the largest loyalist paramilitary group in the Maze - the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) - and a hero for the loyalist cause outside.

" I do not regret any fatalities that have occurred"

Michael Stone

Dressed in black and sporting his trademark ponytail he was greeted by about 50 supporters outside the jail at 1045 BST before heading for east Belfast, where he grew up.

In a candid interview at the Avenue One pub Stone said: "Today is a day of celebration for my friends, myself and my family."

"But I recognise that there are those in the nationalist-republican community who view my release with sadness and anger, just as the release of the republican prisoners on Friday will also anger the loyalist-unionist community."

Television cameras caught Stone launching a gun and grenade attack at the IRA funeral of the two men and one woman shot dead by the SAS on Gibraltar in March 1988.

As well as the three men killed and 60 people injured during his lone assault on the Milltown Cemetery, he also killed another three Catholics between 1984 and 1987.

But although he had welcomed the ceasefire Stone will not apologise for his past.

"If I was to say sorry, I believe it would fall on deaf ears. I would be called a hypocrite. Those operations were military operations. I do not regret any fatalities that have occurred," he explained.

Stone has nine children from two failed marriages and three grandchildren and hopes to settle in an affluent area of east Belfast with his fiancée Suzanne Cooper.

Speaking about his future, Stone laughed off the idea of any involvement in politics, but looks forward to work in the community, like many other former paramilitary prisoners.

In Context
Michael Stone has a house in east Belfast he shares with Ms Cooper, seven dogs and a reinforced tank of tropical fish.

He rarely stays there but moves between various safehouses to avoid being hunted down by republicans seeking revenge, or other loyalists who resent his support for the Good Friday Agreement.

In 2001 Mr Stone and Ms Cooper exchanged bullet-proof jackets as Christmas gifts.

Since leaving prison Michael Stone has concentrated on being an artist - a hobby he began in the Maze. His paintings are vivid and not so much political as topical. They fetch between a few hundred and a few thousand pounds each.

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