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'I could see the injuries to his leg, I feared the worst... he seemed in a bad way'

By Ivan Little

An elderly east Belfast woman has talked of how local people rushed selflessly to save the prison officer who was injured in a breakfast-time bomb blast near her home, an attack which she said had plunged Northern Ireland back into "all our yesterdays of terror".

At the same time, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin was warning that the province's tomorrows could be plagued with more dissident republican murder bids which, he feared, could have more devastating results than yesterday's bombing.

The senior policeman's dire predictions were broadcast in news reports which led bulletins in Britain and around the world on Sky TV.

A 52-year-old prison officer sustained serious leg injuries in the blast, but his condition was said to be stable.

It could have been much worse - the booby-trap device only partially exploded under the prison officer's Volkswagen van.

It's thought the bomb had become dislodged as he drove over a speed bump on Hillsborough Drive off the Cregagh Road as he travelled to the Prison Service's facilities at Hydebank where he works as a tutor.

The elderly woman who witnessed the aftermath of the bombing spoke of her horror at the attack. She said: "I heard a loud explosion around about 7am and at first I thought it may have been a car crash, but it soon became clear that it was a bomb. I saw lots of men coming from nowhere and running towards the van in Hillsborough Drive. There could have been another explosion but they didn't hold back.

"I thought there were two people in the van but I saw people carrying one injured man across the road, and duvets and blankets were brought out for him as well as a huge pillow. The locals tended to him before the ambulances arrived and I thought he looked in a really bad way.

"I could see the injuries to his right leg and I feared the worst, but I was relieved to hear later on that his life wasn't in danger. It's lucky that other people weren't hurt too. The van's bumper was blown off in the blast and ended up close to houses on the road which is often busy with people heading to work.

"Some of the policemen on the scene told me that all the explosives hadn't gone off and that we could be out of our homes for a long time. I am really disgusted that the terrorists are taking us back to the past. I thought all that nonsense was behind us."

Just yards away, echoes of the Troubles of old were all around as dozens of police sealed off the maze of side streets on both sides of the Woodstock and Cregagh roads.

And all the while, Army bomb experts carefully undertook a painstaking operation to examine the scene which is just a mile from where Ulster Rugby officials were preparing for last night's Pro12 game against Zebre at the Kingspan stadium.

A bomb disposal robot, once a familiar sight on the streets of Northern Ireland, was pressed back into service along with a sniffer dog which searched for explosives.

Scores of people were moved from their homes and a Salvation Army centre on the Cregagh Road was opened but only two residents availed of its services and turned down requests for media interviews, though they were visited by a stream of politicians including the East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson.

Other displaced residents stayed with family and friends or wandered aimlessly around the Cregagh Road where a number of cafes and shops, including charity outlets for cancer research organisations and Marie Curie care, were closed because of the bomb alert.

The anger in the area was matched by people's frustration at the return to the violence they thought had disappeared once and for all years ago.

"What in God's name do these dissidents think they are going to achieve?" asked one woman. "What's it all about?"

Her friend responded, saying: "This is the terrorists' way of marking all the 1916 stuff and the Easter Rising in Dublin."

She spoke long before Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin drew the same conclusion and warned of an upsurge of dissident attacks to commemorate 1916 by killing police and prison officers.

He also said the PSNI assessment of the threat posed by dissidents was "at the upper end of severe" and his blunt expression of concern that another attack was highly likely served only to increase anxiety on the Cregagh Road.

One resident said: "People are really worried about what is around the corner now. We are constantly told that there are only a small number of these dissident d********. But even with all the successes the PSNI have had in thwarting attacks, and with all the intelligence they say they have, dissidents can still come into a loyalist area and do what they've done this morning."

Gary Hoy, who has been in the news of late after he spoke out about his abuse as a youngster at the Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast, looked on as the security operation around Hillsborough Drive intensified.

"I am disgusted. It is really worrying that terrorists can find the address of someone who works in the prison service and plant a bomb under his van," he said.

A number of houses in the Woodstock and Cregagh areas are home to people from mainland Europe who have settled in Northern Ireland since the emergence of peace. One baffled Polish woman told me: "I don't really understand what is going on. We just want to get on with our lives quietly and without any fuss. It is obviously a worry if there is going to be trouble on the streets like this morning."

Worried parents had to calm their bewildered children as they tried to get them to primary schools in the Woodstock and Cregagh areas, including Harding Memorial and Euston Street.

A spokesman for the Belfast education authorities said all schools in the area were operating as normal.

He added: "The only difficulties this morning were for parents who couldn't take a direct route to school. But they also managed to find a way around all the road blocks and we have no reports of any absentees."

One long-term resident from the Woodstock Road said it was unnerving for younger people to see the disruption and experience the fear.

"I've had my fair share of the Troubles down the years but in this area, even at the height of the violence, we were spared a lot in terms of bombings and shootings though, in recent times, there have been far too many clashes at interfaces further down the road."

A former part-time member of the security forces who lives nearby said: "The fact that the bomb didn't fully detonate would indicate to me that it wasn't the work of a former Provisional IRA bomber but rather a less experienced dissident. If a Provo had constructed the bomb, I fear we would be dealing with a fatality now."

The ripples from the bombing didn't end at Hillsborough Drive. In nearby Titania Street, police officers who were responding to reports of the blast were involved in a collision with another car.

The woman driver of the vehicle was treated in hospital for minor injuries, as was one of the police officers who had been in the PSNI vehicle.

The crash resulted in the demolition of a lamp-post which smashed through a fence and left debris across the street.

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