Belfast bomb: Further attacks 'highly likely' as 'dissidents want to mark Easter Rising centenary by killing security forces'
Dissident republicans are believed to be behind the attack, as the terrorist threat remains 'severe'
A bomb has exploded under a van in east Belfast, seriously injuring a prison officer - and police have warned it is part of a dissident republican plot to kill security forces in the lead up to the Easter Rising centenary.
The device "partially detonated" under the man's vehicle on Hillsborough Drive off the Woodstock Road just after 7am on Friday morning - causing a loud explosion.
The man was taken to hospital and has undergone surgery. His condition is described as serious, but not life-threatening.
Dissident republicans are being blamed and Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris issued a stark warning from PSNI headquarters that more attacks are planned as the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising approaches.
'Desire to kill'
"I believe that there are people within the dissident republican groupings who want to mark this centenary by killing police officers, prison officers and soldiers," he said.
"We should not underestimate their willingness and their desire to kill. Someone made this device, someone transported it, someone planted it.
"We are working with [centenary] event organisers to ensure they pass off peacefully and we will be culturally sensitive in our policing of the Easter Rising events.
"We ask for the support of the community. Be vigilant - if you see anything suspicious, tell us."
Police have confirmed the victim is a 52-year-old prison officer who is married with grown-up daughters. He has worked for the Prison Service for 28 years.
He had only driven a short distance from his home when the device detonated as he went over a speed ramp.
ACC Martin said: "The prison officer is in hospital. I understand he has undertaken some surgery. We send him our very best wishes for a speedy recovery and we are hopeful that his condition is not life-threatening.
"However, the circumstances could have been very, very different."
The road remains closed where the Woodstock Road meets the Cregagh Road and the Army bomb squad is at the scene.
I've told the Deputy CC that we stand behind him. Disgraceful and despicable attack in East Belfast. #praying— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) March 4, 2016
A number of houses in Hillsborough Drive are being evacuated and an emergency centre has been opened up at the Salvation Army on the Cregagh Road.
A large cordon has been put up around the scene with several streets closed off. Part of a twisted bumper can be seen lying at the side of the road.
A neighbour told the Nolan Show: "I heard the explosion and ran outside.
Thoughts & prayers are with the Prison Officer seriously injured in Belfast this morning.I unreservedly condemn this despicable & futile act— Martin McGuinness (@M_McGuinness_SF) March 4, 2016
"There were a lot of people looking really confused.
"The van was abandoned in the middle of the street and there were a lot of people tending to somebody injured on the pavement."
Anyone who may have witnessed any suspicious activity in the area is urged to contact police on 101.
Among the families making their way to school and people walking to work there was a real sense of shock.
One shop worker waiting to gain permission to open up said he had heard a "massive" bang at about 7.20am.
"I didn't know what it was but it was huge," said the man who declined to be named.
Superintendent Darrin Jones said; “At this time we believe a device has exploded under a vehicle.
“The incident was reported to police at 7.10am this morning Friday 4 March.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said they received the call at 7.10 to reports of a large bang.
Two ambulance crews were sent and two patients were taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the incident as "disgraceful and despicable".
She later issued a joint statement with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness: "We join all right-thinking people in condemning these cowardly actions.
"As a prison officer, he is someone who serves and protects our community and we are united in our rejection of this attack. Prison service workers have our full support as they play their part in building a peaceful society. The perpetrators offer nothing but hatred and fear.
"We urge anyone with any information on this attack to share it with the PSNI."
The Woodstock Road is a predominantly unionist area.
East Belfast Assembly member Chris Lyttle said he was outraged, describing the attack as a "sickening echo of the past".
"I am shocked and sickened someone has attempted to take the life of this man," said the Alliance Party representative.
"It is difficult to put into words the contempt every right-thinking member of society will have for those behind this attack. The people responsible offer nothing except death, injury and disruption.
"Those trying to return Northern Ireland to a climate of fear will not be allowed to win. My thoughts and prayers are with those injured by this device, and I would urge anyone with information about this incident to contact police immediately."
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: "This is a demonstration of how lethal the terrorist threat continues to be in Northern Ireland.
"These groupings are small in number but they are targeting prison officers and police officers... so were it not for the actions of the police we would be seeing these attacks happen far more frequently than they do."
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North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said yesterday's Policing Board meeting was told that the threat level from dissident republicans was "severe" - that an attack was believed to be imminent.
"But that is a constant process that has been ongoing for some years," he told Stephen Nolan.
"We ask this from month-to-month at the Policing Board.
"And it doesn't reflect what has been stopped and what has taken place."
Head of the Prison Officers' Association, Finlay Spratt said: "There is no let up for prison officers in work and in their personal life.
"Threats on their life are near constant."
"Every right-thinking person should be condemning this and those terrorists behind this need to think about what they are trying to achieve."
The under-car bomb blast that injured a prison officer in Northern Ireland is suspected to be the latest attack perpetrated by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
While the actions of the violent extremists remain sporadic, the incident in east Belfast has provided another stark reminder of both their capacity and intent.
Since the Provisional IRA ceasefires of the 1990s, hard-liners have coalesced into various factions.
Only months after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998 one of the radical groups - the Real IRA - killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, in a bomb in the Co Tyrone town of Omagh.
The structure and membership of the disparate gangs have remained fluid ever since, with crossover and co-operation commonplace.
In 2012 prison officer David Black was shot dead by dissidents on the M1 motorway in Co Armagh as he drove to work at Maghaberry high security jail.
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In 2011, 25-year-old policeman Ronan Kerr was killed by an under-car booby trap bomb in Omagh.
Two years earlier, two British soldiers and a policeman were murdered in separate attacks within 48 hours of each other.
In March 2009, the Real IRA claimed responsibility for gunning down Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey outside Massereene Army barracks in Antrim.
Two days later the Continuity IRA said they shot dead Pc Stephen Carroll as he attended a 999 call in Craigavon, Co Armagh.
As well as security force attacks, dissidents have become embroiled in conflicts with drug dealers on both sides of the Irish border, with a number of murders linked to those feuds.
Charlie Flanagan, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister, said he was deeply concerned.
"My immediate thoughts are for the health and welfare of the injured officer and I convey my best wishes to him, his family and colleagues," he said.
"This callous and cowardly incident must be utterly condemned. Not only was it targeted on an individual public servant, it represented a futile attack on the entire community which is determined to achieve a peaceful and reconciled society in Northern Ireland."
Belfast Telegraph Digital