POLICE IN Belfast claimed this week to have busted an extortion racket targeting construction firms.
Three men are in custody facing charges of blackmail and fundraising for terrorism after arrests by detectives posing as building company managers last Thursday.
A sting operation was launched after visits by a man claiming to be from the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association, to a housing development in north Belfast.
Threats were made to close the site and others operated by the firm unless money was handed over, according to police sources.
A meeting in Belfast to discuss the matter ended when undercover detectives made the arrests.
The unnamed building firm is a 'well-known major player' in Northern Ireland.
A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) detective involved in the operation told NCE that construction extortion was rife in parts of Northern Ireland.
'It's almost completely loyalist paramilitaries doing it, and mainly the UDA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. There isn't one contractor in loyalist parts of Belfast not already paying, or which has not at least been asked, ' the officer said.
About 75% of the work of a special anti-extortion unit within the Serious and Organised Crime Squad was in construction industry related rackets which net millions, with payments ranging from £500 to £50,000, he added.
It is believed that police will put pressure on firms making payments, which in itself is a criminal offence. 'These payments are immoral and are used to buy guns, ' he said.
Construction firms are being urged to contact the unit at PSNI headquarters where they would be assured of one-to-one confidential advice Call the PSNI on (028) 9065 0222