The bombers missed their intended targets, the leaders of the banned Ulster Defence Association, and instead cut down shoppers when they blasted a fishmonger's shop underneath UDA offices in the Shankill Road, the Protestant heartland of the city.
It appeared that at least one of the bombers might have been killed in the explosion when the IRA said in a statement that 'not all our volunteers are accounted for'. Warnings were to have been given, the statement said, but the bomb had gone off prematurely.
The atrocity, one of the worst in 25 years of violence in Northern Ireland, raised sectarian tensions to a dangerous level, with loyalist extremists quickly vowing revenge. The UDA said last night all its members were 'fully mobilised'.
The owner of the shop, Desmond Frizzell, and his daughter Sharon, mother of a two-year-old child, were known to have died in the explosion.
Early reports said the attack was carried out by two men dressed as butchers in white coats and white peaked caps who entered the shop and left a box which exploded at 1.15pm, demolishing the building.
Members of the emergency services and local people, some of them weeping, used lifting gear and their hands to shift the rubble. One stunned survivor said: 'I went over to try to help but there was nothing I could do. There were people lying dead in the middle of the street. It was horrific. Women and children . . . what did they do to deserve this?'
A senior ambulance controller described it as 'an atrocity on a par with anything we faced in the 1970s'. It was the highest death toll in an incident in Northern Ireland since 1987.
The bombing may mean the end of the 'peace process' which the SDLP leader John Hume has been pursuing with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.
Although the target was offices used by the UDA, one of the leading loyalist terrorist organisations, injuries to other people were inevitable because the offices adjoin shops on a busy stretch of the road.
The bombing appears to have been deliberately designed to draw the maximum violent response from loyalists.
A local unionist councillor, Fred Rodgers, said yesterday: 'It was timed quite deliberately to catch as many innocent people on the Shankill Road, out about their business doing their shopping, as it possibly could. I would appeal to the community not to be drawn into a blatant sectarian conflict because that is what the republicans want.'
Police announced an emergency number - Belfast (0232) 673371 - for anxious relatives.
The IRA said its target was the UDA, which it said had been 'involved in a savage and sustained murder offensive against innocent Catholics'. Although the UDA was banned in August last year because of its violent activities, it is an open secret that it has continued to use the Shankill Road premises.
When the ban was announced a sign proclaiming 'Business as usual' was posted in the window. Officially, however, the offices are used by a welfare organisation catering for loyalist prisoners.
The Prime Minister, John Major, at the Commonwealth conference in Cyprus, described the atrocity as 'sheer bloody-minded evil - there is no other way to describe it'.
He heard the news at Paphos in western Cyprus where Commonwealth leaders are enjoying a weekend retreat.
Clearly shocked, he said everything must be done to avoid a tit-for-tat response. 'Sadly we have become used to this sort of tragedy in recent years.'
The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said he condemned this 'dreadful outrage and the senseless and wanton waste of life'.
Bloodshed fears, page 2
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