Video: Dissident republicans responsible for explosion during Belfast city centre bomb alert
Hundreds evacuated in Cathedral Quarter area
Dissident republicans have claimed responsibility for a small explosion in Belfast city centre's Cathedral Quarter area on Friday night.
The blast happened amid a bomb alert in the St Anne's Square area of the city - one of the city's busiest weekend spots.
It's understood the explosion happened at around 6.45pm close to two restaurants - Salt Bistro and The Potted Hen - in the bustling nightlife spot.
There are no reports of any injuries.
It's believed the device had been placed in a duffel bag.
It's understood dissident republicans called in a bomb warning to a newspaper at around 6pm this evening, prompting the security alert.
Hundreds were evacuated in the dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels.
Many of those gathered outside had been out celebrating Christmas with work colleagues.
This weekend is one of the busiest for staff outings in the run-up.
Dozens of those forced to pile out onto the streets had just sat down to food, just as police began evacuating the area.
Police tonight maintained a large presence in the surrounding area - with St Anne's Square and nearby streets being shut off to the public.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said the bomb attack on the "people of Belfast" was "absolutely deplorable".
"This was a reckless attack aimed at a busy entertainment area of the city," she said.
"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's 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."
A police spokesman tonight said: "A number of businesses and streets in the Cathedral area of Belfast have been cordoned off following a small explosion.
"It occurred at about 6.45pm as police were checking reports of a suspicious object.
"At this stage there are no reports of any injuries."
Police have also asked Belfast business owners to check their premises thoroughly before closing tonight.
Justice Minister David Ford said those behind the attack "have set out no reason for their senseless acts of violence".
Friday night's explosion comes after dissident republicans were blamed for a bomb which partially exploded in a hijacked car outside Belfast's Victoria Square shopping centre.
The car bomb - which was parked outside an underground carpark at Victoria Square shopping centre - partially exploded as Army bomb crews were dealing with the alert at round 11.15pm on Sunday night.
According to police the device was a 60kg 'beer-keg' bomb.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum said the potentially fatal blast "could have been catastrophic for Belfast and Northern Ireland".
The security alert began around two hours earlier after three masked men dressed in boiler suits hijacked a car in the Jamaica Street area of north Belfast at around 9.30pm.
A bomb was then placed in the Renault Laguna and the driver told to take it to Victoria Square.
Condemnation for tonight's attack came thick and fast from across the political spectrum.
Meanwhile, Paul McErlean of the Cathedral Quarter Trust said "this type of violent action is unacceptable in our modern society and must not be tolerated".
"The Cathedral Quarter Trust condemns this attempt to disrupt and damage businesses and to put public safety at risk," he said.
Belfast Telegraph Digital