BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Driving a cab is one of this city's few growth industries. But it has recently become one of the most dangerous as well.
Gunmen have slain seven cab drivers in the past 16 months. Several others have been shot or have drawn fire. So far this year, gunmen have slain as many cabbies as policemen, the favorite target of the provisional Irish Republican Army.
While the IRA has killed some drivers, contending that they were members of pro-British paramilitary groups, officials say loyalist gunmen have carried out most of the shootings.
Authorities also say some cab companies have been infiltrated by paramilitaries from each side in Northern Ireland's sectarian strife.
The groups have infiltrated companies to gain access to cash and control of dispatch systems so taxis can be hijacked to carry gunmen and bombers. But the overwhelming majority of cabbies have avoided the conflict. Most are simply part-time workers trying to supplement regular, low-paying jobs.
So when loyalist gunmen released a statement five weeks ago saying they considered all Catholic drivers targets because "republicans are using taxis as cover to target loyalists and as such are part of the republican war machine," a collective shudder went through many of the estimated 4,000 drivers in Belfast.
British soldiers and policemen remain the chief targets here, but they at least are armed. Cab drivers are defenseless.
"Driving a taxi is probably the most dangerous job in Northern Ireland now," said Howard Burns, a union leader who is trying to organize the industry, which is generally unregulated. "The lads don't know whether they're going to get a fare or a bullet."
Catholic drivers feel especially vulnerable because loyalist gunmen have often made little distinction between extremists and uninvolved Catholics. But both Protestant and Catholic drivers worry that the violence may widen into a tit-for-tat killing spree of the sort that has had many antecedents in 22 years of political and sectarian conflict.
Billy Spencer, a Protestant who has driven a cab for 10 years, said it's "a vicious circle."
While most Belfast drivers have avoided the strife, many of the men who drive black taxis on Falls and Shankill roads were once involved with one faction or the other. But because the drivers operate inside their respective neighborhoods, shuttling people to and from the city center, they have not been targeted.
Instead, the radio-dispatched taxi drivers, who constitute the vast majority of cabbies, run the greatest risk. The names of the companies for which they drive often indicate their religion, as do the required --board identification cards, which list their names and addresses.