130lb bomb ‘meant for shopping centre’ (UTV)

The 130lb proxy car bomb intended to blow up the underground car park of one of Belfast’s main shopping centres “could have been catastrophic for Belfast and Northern Ireland”, police have said.

A hijacked driver was ordered to take the primed device in the back of his car from Ardoyne to Victoria Square by three masked men in boilersuits, who warned him that he would be followed.

“The man was clearly very upset, very scared, but felt he had no other option but to drive a primed bomb into the city centre,” PSNI Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum told UTV.

“He did that and left it in Victoria Street, close to the access to Victoria Square, and then ran across to the police station.”

After the alarm was raised, cordons were put in place, with hundreds of shoppers and residents caught up in the security alert – close to both Musgrave PSNI station and the Laganside courts complex – from 9.30pm on Sunday.

But, as army experts examined the bomb, the booster charge went off at about 11.15pm – blowing a door and the rear windscreen out of the vehicle.

If the bomb had fully detonated, Chief Superintendent McCrum said the consequences would have been very considerable for the city centre.

“With the high buildings, with the amount of glass in certainly Victoria Square and around the courts and the police station, it undoubtedly would have had a severe impact,” he said.

“Four weeks out from Christmas, one of the major city centre streets would have been, perhaps not devastated, but very significantly damaged.”

Police are urging vigilance in the run-up to Christmas, given the increased threat level which will also mean a more visible security presence in the city centre and in other towns across Northern Ireland.

“It’s been many years since there was an attempt to put a car bomb into the city centre,” Chief Superintendent McCrum added.

“Much of that is to do with the fact that the police are out there 24 hours a day, active and making sure the city is a safe place. So the city still is very much a safe place to shop and a safe place to socialise and a safe place to work in. And we will continue to try to make it all of those things.”

Detectives are continuing to appeal for anyone with information – particularly about the movements of the hijacked car – to contact them, either directly or anonymously through Crimestoppers.

The vehicle in question is a silver-coloured Renault Laguna, registration number CJZ 4697.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers condemned the bomb attack and said that businesses were being “held to ransom” by terrorists at the start of the festive season.

“The people behind this attack want to drag Northern Ireland back to the past,” she said.

“They are deliberately seeking to damage the efforts of the Government and the NI Executive to promote growth and jobs in Northern Ireland and attract tourists and investors.

“Northern Ireland deserves so much more – there is no support in the community for the disgraceful activities of these terrorist groups.”

Meanwhile, Justice Minister David Ford has blamed dissidents for the attempted bomb attack, slamming their “disregard for the people of Belfast”.

The Alliance leader added: “Had the device exploded en route, it could have caused untold death and injury.

“Thankfully little damage was caused and there were no injuries. However, aside from the appalling experience of the driver, the lives of hundreds of people were disrupted and many businesses continue to be affected.

“The people responsible for this attack have nothing to offer and it is time they realised that Northern Ireland has moved on from the dark days of our past.”

Irish Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore said the bomb attack was “nothing short of attempted murder”.

He added: “A serious incident such as this, as we move into the Christmas shopping period, is an attempt to harm trade, tourism and employment in Belfast.

“I urge anyone with information to pass it directly onto the PSNI.”

DUP Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster also condemned the attack, saying it did nothing to help the economy or the community.

“It is not on the scale of the bad old days, but it is a worrying trend – the hijacking of cars and buses, which seems to be the modus operandi for these people,” she said.

“I would urge people to be vigilant and to keep their doors locked.

“This is not the sort of thing we want from our capital city, which had a difficult time last Christmas.”

Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey branded the bomb attack “completely reckless”.

He added: “Had this bomb detonated to its full capacity, we could very well be dealing with many injured or killed. And what would it have achieved?

“These actions are disrupting people’s lives, sending more people to prison, and could eventually lead to a loss of life. Whoever is behind these attacks need to stop and stop immediately.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey said: “These are the actions of cowardly bullies and must be condemned by all right-thinking people.

“Transporting devices through town and city streets is utter madness. These are unstable home-made devices and could detonate at any time.”

SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney added: “It’s only good fortune that no one was seriously injured, or worse, and those behind this have nothing to offer. Forty years of violence proved that.

“People should not be deterred. Our strongest message to those who offer no agenda and only disruption and chaos, is to reject them and back our businesses.”

Chair of the Policing Board Anne Connolly said the device had the potential to cause death, injury and serious damage to property.

“The community really are sick and tired of the actions of dissidents and the widespread disruption that is being caused to people’s lives and livelihoods,” she said.

“The use of the ‘proxy bomb’ tactic in recent days is concerning and further evidences the complete lack of care these people have for those who might get caught up in an attack.”

In a separate incident, Ravenhill Avenue was closed in both directions at its junction with Roseberry Gardens and Roseberry Road after a suspicious object was found in the area on Sunday.

Earlier, a suspect object found at Stockman’s Lane was declared a hoax by police following a controlled explosion. It was the first of the three security alerts to disrupt the city on Sunday.

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