Bomb 'was left beside restaurant'
A bomb that exploded in Belfast city centre was left on a footpath beside a busy restaurant - a totally different location to that named in a telephone warning, police have said.
Officers were in the process of evacuating around a thousand people from bars, eateries, homes, a theatre and a hotel in the bustling Cathedral Quarter district - which was packed with festive season revellers - when the device detonated just before 7pm this evening. There were no reports of any injuries.
Dissident republicans opposed to the peace process have been widely blamed for the attack.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum said the caller who telephoned in the bomb warning to a Belfast newsroom wrongly claimed the device had been left at a hotel.
He said the "totally reckless" bombing had the potential to kill or cause serious injury.
"This was an attack on the people of Belfast going about their normal lives on a busy night for socialising in the city," he said.
"This attack ruined the night out for these people. Those who carried out this attack have nothing to offer except disruption and destruction.
"Police would appeal for continued community support and vigilance on the run up to Christmas in seeking to disrupt or deter any further attack on the city."
Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford said the attack was an attempt to kill innocents while Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers branded it "deplorable".
Police described the explosion as "small" but said they were not yet in a position to determine what sort of bomb it was.
Security has been ramped up in the city since a man was forced by masked dissidents to drive a car bomb to a shopping centre that faces a police station last month. That 60kg (132lb) device only partially exploded and no-one was injured.
"Yet again we see a reckless attempt to kill and injure innocent people in Belfast," Mr Ford said.
"The people carrying out these attacks have set out no reason and explained no cause for their acts of senseless violence. Their only aim seems to be to injure and disrupt. They ignore the strength of public support for normality and peace, especially at this Christmas season."
Ms Villiers said: "This was a reckless attack aimed at a busy entertainment area of the city.
"On one of busiest nights of the year with people enjoying the festivities ahead of Christmas, as well as all those in the final stages of Christmas shopping, it shows that these terrorists are stooping to a new low.
"This small minority want to drain the economic life from Belfast - but we will not let them succeed."
Police have urged the public, particularly business owners, to be on the look out for suspicious objects.
In November dissidents were also blamed when a bus driver in Londonderry was forced to drive a bomb to a police station in the city. She abandoned the vehicle before reaching the destination and the device did not explode.
While the threat posed by the violent extremists has remained classed as severe, police have acknowledged a "surge" in activity has taken place in recent weeks.
The area targeted is named after the landmark St Anne's Church of Ireland cathedral.
In a joint statement, senior church figures the Dean of Belfast Reverend John Mann and the Bishop of Connor Alan Abernethy said: "Following this evening's explosion in the Cathedral Quarter, we are profoundly saddened at the attempt to disrupt and endanger the people of Belfast at this time.
"We will continue to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and to continue to ask people to pray, be vigilant and to work together for peace."
Democratic Unionist Assembly member and Policing Board representative Jonathan Craig said it was a miracle no-one was harmed.
"This was a reckless act which could have easily taken life or caused serious injury," he said.
"It was a miracle no-one was injured as the bomb exploded as the area was being evacuated.
"No family wants such tragedy visited on them at any time of the year but certainly not at Christmas. This should be a joyous time when families enjoy festive outings and meals together.
"The small remnant who have perpetrated this act need taken from our streets. The vast majority want to live peaceably."
Sinn Fein MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly said: "This indiscriminate and reckless action was an attack on all the people of Belfast and those that had come into the city centre to shop or enjoy the build up to the festive holidays.
"Thankfully no-one was hurt. Those that voice support for these groups, whose only allegiance is to violence, need to come forward and explain to the people what they aim to achieve by this reckless action.
"They are visionless and opponents of change who will not stop the people of Belfast and beyond from moving forward to a more equal and peaceful society."
Representatives from the hospitality and business community have also condemned the attack on the city.
Paul McMahon, president of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said: "We are very fortunate that no-one was injured or killed in this attack. We will be discussing the security implications with the police as soon as possible."
Paul McErlean, chair of the Cathedral Quarter Trust, added: "The Cathedral Quarter Trust condemns this attempt to disrupt and damage businesses and to put public safety at risk. This type of violent action is unacceptable in our modern society and must not be tolerated.
"The Cathedral Quarter has grown to become Belfast's social and cultural epicentre and it will not be dragged into the past by the indefensible actions of this faceless minority."
Pubs of Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said the blast had put countless people at risk.
"Pubs of Ulster are shocked to hear that a bomb has exploded in the Cathedral Quarter - an area of Belfast which is thriving with large groups of people enjoying the festive period," he said.
"We condemn this act in the strongest possible terms as it has put countless people at risk.
"Thankfully there are no reports of injuries but the injury to confidence in Belfast as a safe city will no doubt be damaged by this news.
"We would encourage people not to be deterred by this news. Belfast will certainly not be deterred and is open for business."