Two different but related events stunned a Macau public numbed by months of gangland violence last week - and posed more starkly than ever the question: 'Is the enclave out of control?'. The first came seven days ago with the calculated and bloody mafia-style execution of three men as they drove along the enclave's busy Avenida de Praia Grande not far from the showpiece Lisboa Hotel. Their killers, two gunmen riding motorbikes one-handed on either side of the victims' moving car, shot nine times through the vehicle's back and front side windows in a concentrated burst of fire from two 7.62mm Chinese military-issue semi-automatic pistols. None of the shots missed. The gunmen fled and are still at large, almost certainly in China. Even by the standards of Macau's recent violent past, the killings were out of the ordinary, shattering a sunny afternoon and leaving stunned Sunday shoppers staring in disbelief at three corpses slumped in a crashed car. Then, 48 hours later, came shock number two. Referring to the above attack, the enclave's embattled Secretary for Security, Brigadier Manuel Soares Monge, told a nervous population not to worry about their safety. As the Governor, General Vasco Rocha Vieira, appealed for calm, Mr Monge assured law-abiding men, women and children that the streets were safe because the perpetrators of this and the now almost weekly string of attacks, were 'professional killers who never miss their targets'. It was an incredible statement and was met with widespread and understandable disbelief. How could a senior government official be so blase? Was he condoning the cold-blooded murder of men who live on the wrong side of the law? Obviously not, but so far this year, so called 'professional killers' have murdered 14 people and scores more have been wounded and maimed in related gang feuds. Democratic legislator Antonio Ng Kuok-cheong has gone as far as describing the situation as a 'civil war' and has blasted the police for their inability to stem the tide of violence. And with strong rumours that both sides in the gang conflict are 'tooling up' for more violence with a more fearsome range of weaponry including automatic machine guns and grenades, even the most optimistic observers fear matters are going to get worse before they get better. Meetings have reportedly been held by both sides to discuss the next step and police privately admit one of their biggest concerns is that someone does 'something desperate'. 'They think with a criminal mind and in an environment like this they know only too well their life may be cut short; add that to worries about their power base in the run-up to 1999 and you've got a real mess,' said one officer. A local businessman, who like many was too scared to give his name, voiced his incredulity at Mr Monge's statement: 'How could a man in his position say that? Apart from the fact you have three dead bodies, it only takes one stray bullet to hit or kill an innocent passer-by.' However, the secretary for security's sentiments are not uncommon in official Macau circles. In the past seven months, as the enclave has slipped deeper and deeper into a full-scale triad war, officials have fallen back on the 'if you're not a bad guy, you're okay' argument many times. But for many people in Macau that will no longer do. At the current level of violence, they fear it may only be a matter of time before someone unconnected to the gangsters is killed. A Catholic nun who offers shelter for the poor said: 'Everyone is scared. They may be shooting each other now but it is a small place and threats are finding their way to peoples' extended families.' And the worries don't end there. An experienced Portuguese police detective said: 'I have my professionalism to maintain but I also have a wife and children. We all have to be a bit more careful. There are no heroes here; heroes are only in the movies.' His concerns are not hollow. Macau's Judiciary Police Director, Dr Antonio Francisco Marques Baptista, now never leaves his office without a bodyguard and on every car journey he is flanked by armed motorcycle out-riders. 'Baptista is a target, I don't know if there have been direct threats but he is a target,' said a source. The pretence that the underworld can be contained has been blown apart. Security officials and senior police who formerly shied away from inflammatory phrases like 'gang war' and 'turf war' now openly acknowledge that two triad gangs - the 14K and the Wo On Lok (Shiu Fong) - are at each others' throats. Macau's police, however, may have enemy agents in their own camp. Earlier this month Mr Baptista called all his men to police HQ to brief them on a raid connected with organised crime, but before he began, he confiscated every mobile telephone and pager in the room. It was one of the force's more successful operations. Last Sunday's attack marked a turning point in the war which started late last year. It was the first high-profile act of retaliation against the 14K by the Shiu Fong in the battle for shares in the shrinking pool of illicit casino-related profits. All three dead men were 14K members and, significantly, one of them, Shek Wing-cheong, 37, a former Hong Kong police officer, was a senior lieutenant of the man reputed to be the gang's leader. Theories explaining the exact reason for the executions are almost as plentiful as spent bullet casings on the street, but everyone agrees, the summary execution of Shek and his associates Fong Mou-hung, 33, and Lo Wing-hwa, 35, have raised the stakes considerably. Casino rackets, an influx of overseas gangs, manoeuvring for a position of influence when China takes over and cash-flow problems brought on by the enclave's economic downturn are at the root of the war. But other factors have made it more bloody and vindictive, according to investigators. Power struggles, inter-gang jealousies and the settling of long-standing scores give the conflict a momentum of its own and often, police admit, it takes them months to piece together the real reason for an attack. 'One attack may be clear-cut but then you get three or four others around the same time. Often it is someone settling an unconnected old score. They know we are busy and they take advantage,' said one officer. It is almost certain that Shek and his associates were killed in revenge for the murder of Lam Pui-chang, 44, a rich businessman from Hong Kong who wielded considerable influence as a shareholder in one of the enclave's VIP casino rooms and as a gambling tour operator. Lam, whose elder brother Lam Pui-kwan, 49, survived an assassination bid in a Happy Valley karaoke lounge in February this year - an attempted murder still being probed for its links to Macau - was gunned down on Taipa Island by an unknown man on April 17. Lam was a respected member of the Kung Lok triad society - a lesser-known gang whose origins are in Hong Kong but now have more influence in Macau, and he may also have had close links to the Shiu Fong. A police source said: 'The attack [on Shek] may have been carried out by the Shui Fong or it may have been the Kung Lok. Lam Pui-chang was well respected by the foot soldiers. He was a bad loss, hence the viciousness of the response.' The main worry now is how the 14K will respond to the murder of one of their top men. Shek's killing is a major loss of face and despite reports that the man on whose order revenge would be carried out - the reputed head of the enclave's 14K - had fled to either China, Portugal or Thailand, sources claim he is hiding out in Macau. 'He couldn't flee in the middle of a war; it would leave the organisation without a leader and it would weaken his standing to be seen to be 'running away', ' said the source. The leader of the Shiu Fong, according to the source, is also still in Macau, for much the same reasons. The holder of a Portuguese passport, the reputed 14K head reported his wife missing in 1995 and no one has seen her since. He now has a Hong Kong girlfriend and is currently banned from the enclave's casinos. 'In their [ordinary members'] terms, he is a good leader, a charismatic character,' said a source. 'But he has many enemies; if he was to be killed a lot of people would be celebrating and many of them would be from inside the 14K,' he added. One man, through his former job as a police intelligence officer and now as the enclave's top gambling inspector, knows the workings of Macau's underworld, but he has refused to speak. Former Portuguese Army commando, Lieutenant-Colonel Manuel Antonio Apolinario, survived being shot twice in the head in an apparent assassination attempt just a stone's throw away from Sunday's attack in November last year. After making a miraculous recovery he was back at his desk and promoted within four months. However, a few weeks ago he returned to Lisbon, officially for further treatment to his neck wound but it is widely believed Macau has seen the last of him. His attackers have never been caught. Hopes that the Apolinario incident would bring the full force of the law to bear on the triad gangs have proved forlorn in the extreme. Last Sunday's killings and the inability of the police to arrest and prosecute anyone in connection with earlier murders has provoked increasingly stern criticism from China, which is concerned the situation could affect what has been, so far, a smooth handover process. Under pressure, the Macau Government is fast-tracking tough new anti-triad laws which should be in place within a few weeks, but there is a widely-held belief that the moves are too little too late.