Car bombing heightens fears of escalation in dissident violence

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Fears of an escalation in dissident republican terrorist attacks heightened tonight after a car bomb wrecked buildings near the centre of Londonderry.



Even though police said nearly 60 people have already been charged this year for dissident activity, security chiefs are becoming increasingly concerned by the developing threat from hardliners trying to derail the peace process.



Two police officers were injured in the latest attack, carried out by the Real IRA, which was responsible for the Omagh bombing in 1998 which killed 29 people.



The Derry bomb - believed to have contained more than 200lb of explosives packed into a Vauxhall Corsa - exploded just after midnight, damaging a branch of the Ulster Bank and shops in front of Da Vinci's hotel in Culmore Road.



Police believe the device may have been abandoned after the presence of officers in the area prevented the bombers reaching a different, unknown target.



The blast comes at a time of rising optimism in Derry after it was named UK Capital of Culture for 2013.



But the negative impact of the blast tonight saw Italian football officials request security information ahead of their Euro 2012 qualifier against Northern Ireland on Friday, though football authorities in Belfast said they expect the Italians to arrive in the city for the game as planned.



Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, in Birmingham for the Conservative Party conference, said he was disgusted by the attack in his native city.



Mr McGuinness, once an IRA commander in the city, said: "These conflict junkies are attempting to drive a city living very much to the future back to the past.



"People in this city are horrified that there are still these Neanderthals within our society."



There had been a warning around an hour before the blast and several people, including hotel guests, residents in a nursing home and people living nearby, were evacuated.



There were claims that the attack was timed to coincide with Mr McGuinness attending the Tory conference where he spoke at a fringe meeting.



Staff at the Ulster Bank were threatened some time ago by the Real IRA.



Two months ago a 200lb car bomb exploded outside a police station half a mile away in Strand Road. Dissident republicans were also blamed for that explosion.



In February the Real IRA shot dead Kieran Doherty in Derry. He was stripped and bound and his body dumped on a road close to the Irish border. There was widespread condemnation after the group claimed the dead man was one of its members but was killed for involvement in drugs. Earlier Mr Doherty claimed to have been approached by MI5.



But in the wake of the latest attack, DUP East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said more has to be done to jail dissidents.



He suggested there are some within the mainstream republican movement who may have information on the bombers and insisted words of condemnation are not enough.



Referring to recent Sinn Fein descriptions of the dissidents, he told the Northern Ireland Assembly: "We understand that these people have been called 'conflict junkies', they've been called 'traitors', and they've been called 'Neanderthals'.



"We know all of what they've been called but we also know that they are still carrying out these attacks.



"The only way to stop them is convictions in a court of law. Anyone who has any information, be they in this house or outside it, should give it to the police to ensure that those guilty of such attacks are brought before the courts to prevent a recurrence."



The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) tonight released fresh figures on its efforts to combat dissident activity. It said there had been 37 dissident republican incidents so far this year, with 169 arrests and 59 people charged, compared with 17 people charged during all of 2009.



Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Republic of Ireland foreign minister Micheal Martin condemned the attack and said political progress would not be derailed.



First Minister Peter Robinson issued a joint statement with Mr McGuinness which said: "It is clear that the people who carried out this attack have no regard for life or property. Their sole aim is to disrupt our peaceful society and to create a culture of fear."



Justice Minister David Ford said the bomb was an attack on the people of Derry but also on the wider political process.



He added: "Those who planted this bomb have been rejected by the people of Ireland, both North and South, and they will not be allowed to succeed in their attempts to drag Northern Ireland back to the past."