Police hunt man after explosion
Police are trawling through hours of CCTV footage in the hunt for a man in a black hooded top suspected of leaving a bomb outside a busy restaurant in Belfast.
Vigilant passers-by who discovered the dissident republican device minutes before it detonated in the packed Cathedral Quarter district last night have been hailed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for averting a tragedy.
Officers, acting on misleading information provided in a telephone bomb warning to a Belfast newspaper, had been evacuating people from a hotel 150 metres away from where a sports bag containing the bomb had been placed.
Once informed about the holdall by members of the public, they were able to refocus the security operation on the area immediately around it.
The bomb warning was telephoned to the Irish News at 6pm, the report of the bag was received at 6.20pm and the bomb exploded at 6.44pm. No one was injured, with 1,000 people having been evacuated from the area. Police have characterised the explosion as "small" but potentially deadly.
Dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann has claimed responsibility for the latest in a recent spate of terror attacks by extremist republicans opposed to the peace process.
Detective Chief Inspector Justyn Galloway, the PSNI officer leading the investigation into the blast, outlined the deadly potential of the bomb.
"This device fully functioned," he said.
"The device contained flammable liquid and explosives and it has some similarities to devices that have been used before by dissident republicans."
The PSNI today released an image of the black Slazenger bag in which the bomb was contained, taken moments before it exploded.
Mr Galloway praised those who noticed the bag and contacted police.
"Members of the public were vigilant and they did come forward and speak to police and it clearly averted injuries last night," he said.
He appealed to anyone who may have seen the suspect carrying the holdall in and around the Cathedral Quarter area.
"Did they see a male wearing a black hoody carrying a black Slazenger bag in and around 6pm last night," he said.
"If they saw this person or anyone acting suspiciously I would ask them to come forward and speak to detectives."
The lead detective also commended the actions of the police and staff in the restaurants, bars and hotel who assisted with the evacuation.
He said analysis of security camera footage from the area as a key priority for the police.
"Detectives are out today and have been out through the night, it is a built up area, there is a large amount of cameras and that is definitely one line of enquiry we are following up," he said.
Security measures are being ramped up in Belfast city centre following the explosion.
With thousands expected to hit the capital's high streets on what is to be one of the busiest Christmas shopping weekends of the year, police have appealed for vigilance.
And businesses are continuing to urge people to support trade by venturing into the centre.
Police have been stopping cars and checking car boots at the entrance of Castle Court Shopping Centre in the city since last month.
Other security checkpoints were set up throughout Belfast after a man was forced by masked dissidents to drive a car bomb to another shopping centre - one that faces a police station - in late November.
That 60kg (132lb) device only partially exploded and no-one was injured.
In a separate statement today, the PSNI requested members of the public in north and west Belfast particularly to be vigilant over the coming weekend, and to report any suspicious behaviour.
The scene of the blast had been cleared this morning. There was no sign there had been an explosion - bar a slight black mark on a wall.
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.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny joined police, political and church representatives and traders in condemning the attack.
"I condemn this atrocity as a mindless attack on the sanctity of human life, carried out by people whose depraved agenda cannot, and will not, be allowed to gain a foothold in Northern Ireland," he said.
"We must remain ever vigilant in ensuring that peace in Northern Ireland is maintained, and that it continues on its path to becoming an ever more progressive society."
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have described the bomb attack as "despicable".
Mr Robinson said he condemned it in the strongest possible terms.
"Once again we are witnessing the work of a mindless minority who are intent on taking the heart out of the city and wreaking havoc on the lives and businesses of the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland," Mr Robinson said.
Mr McGuinness said those responsible had shown a complete disregard for human life.
"Their actions have done nothing to move our society forward but instead have caused distress to local residents, disruption to Christmas revellers and loss of revenue for surrounding businesses," he said.
In a joint statement, both ministers appealed with anyone with information to contact police.