Speaking after a weekend of savage disorder throughout the province, the RUC chief constable Sir Hugh Annesley condemned the blast as "evil, cowardly and a wanton attack".
The crucial question of who planted the device, near the scene of the 1987 bomb which killed 11 people at a Remembrance Day parade, was still unclear. The IRA denied res- ponsibility, while security sources in Dublin said it was the work of the breakaway faction, Republican Sinn Fein.
Sir Hugh was noncommittal about reports that one of the two 20-minute warnings before the explosion mentioned the IRA. The calls were made to the Killyhevlin hotel itself and a Catholic priest, and contained no recognised code words. The IRA also usually phones its warnings to media organisations. One clue to those responsible is that the vehicle which contained the bomb was stolen in Dublin on 3 July.
Detectives said it was too early to say whether the bomb, made of home-made explosives, and left in a grey Isuzu Trooper jeep parked seven feet from the hotel entrance, bore the hallmarks of any particular terrorist group.
The explosion, just after midnight, blew away the entire front section of the building, leaving a crater 12ft wide and destroying nine parked cars.
The last of the more than 200 hotel guests, including people attending a Catholic wedding reception, and two pregnant women, were evacuated across fields just two minutes before it detonated.
Declan McGovern, a hotel worker, said: "We got a phone call to say there was a bomb at the front of the hotel. We had a wedding party, and I got hold of the microphone from the band and told everyone what had happened and asked them to leave quickly and without panic."
Many of those who fled were still wearing their nightclothes. The blast was heard up to 10 miles away. One said: "We only just got out in time. It was very frightening."
A newly-married couple, Martina McManus and Thaddeus Turbett, were among 17 people taken to hospital, where three were later detained suffering from shock.
A police spokesman said: "Had the bomb gone off two minutes earlier, there would have been an incredible loss of life." Hotel owner Rodney Watson, who hopes to reopen part of the hotel this week, said it was "a miracle" that no one was badly hurt.
Instead of beginning their honeymoon in Tenerife yesterday, the Turbetts were coming to terms with being the first bomb victims in Ulster since the IRA ceasefire began in September 1994.
The blast came after escalating scenes of violence in the province, the worst of which occurred in Londonderry over the weekend. Million of pounds of damage was caused to local businesses by petrol bombs in three nights of intense rioting.
Nearly 2,000 petrol bombs were thrown during Thursday and Friday nights, and, although only 200 were thrown during further disturbances early yesterday morning, police said the ferocity of attacks was still strong and described scenes there as "absolute madness".
But nationalists in the city, who staged a second protest march last night, accused the RUC and the Army of indiscriminately firing thousands of plastic baton rounds at demonstrators. Local feeling was further inflamed by the death of Catholic factory worker Dermot McShane, 36, who was crushed underneath an armoured vehicle early on Saturday.
Belfast also saw outbreaks of violence early yesterday morning in many Catholic areas, including the Ardoyne and The Markets, and at one stage an RUC police station was attacked with petrol bombs.
However, a nationalist protest of 5,000 people through the Falls Road area passed off peacefully yesterday afternoon.
There were also disturbances in Newry, Downpatrick, Dungiven and Strabane. Ulster Buses said it faced a pounds 5m bill for the destruction of 34 vehicles during the week since the start of the siege of Drumcree in Portadown.Reuse content