IRA bomb injures 27 in Belfast city centre

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TWENTY-SEVEN people were injured, one of them seriously, when an IRA bomb exploded in offices on a busy Belfast city centre shopping street yesterday. Later, more civilians were put at risk when an Army observation post on top of a tower block of flats in north Belfast was hit by a rocket attack.

The city centre device, a blast incendiary left on a stairway, detonated within a few minutes of a telephone warning, leaving dozens of workers in danger of being engulfed by the subsequent fire.

Workers on upper floors threw chairs through windows to allow smoke to escape and to get fresh air. There was only one serious injury and most of those hurt were allowed to go home after treatment for cuts, bruises and shock.

A man detained in hospital last night was in an intensive care unit where his condition was ill but stable. Witnesses said a man had been engulfed in flames when the device went off, and one theory was that someone had attempted to carry the bomb into the street.

The Army observation post hit by an RPG-7 rocket last night is on the top of flats overlooking the Republican New Lodge Road area. Police said there were no injuries. However, republicans have often claimed that the Army is sheltering behind the civilian population in sighting such posts on top of tower blocks.

The earlier attack on Belfast city centre brought a chorus of condemnation together with statements of regret from the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein.

The owner of one of the upstairs businesses said he had received a telephone call from the IRA saying staff had 10 minutes to get out. He added: 'There was a bomb on the stairs, which I had a look at. I walked back up the stairs again and within a minute the bomb went off.

'I saw one of our members of staff in flames and another man with a split eye. We had to break windows with chairs to try to get the smoke out.'

The IRA said it appeared someone had tampered with the device, which it maintained contained half a pound of explosives and had been set to go off 25 minutes after it was placed. Evacuation of the building would have meant staff walking right past the bomb on the stairs.

No one was hurt in a bombing at a car parts shop in the city centre some hours later.

Several people were arrested in a follow-up operation after the second attack.

An RUC decision not to suspend from duty a policeman involved in the latest 'shoot-to-kill' controversy was attacked by nationalist sources yesterday. The officer was involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed IRA man, Pearse Jordan, who was killed on the Falls Road in Belfast last Wednesday.

The RUC said he had been switched to non-operational duties. Given the circumstances as they were known to the police, at this stage it was not considered appropriate to suspend him.

The move was criticised both by Sinn Fein and by Joe Hendron, the SDLP MP for west Belfast. Dr Hendron said the decision demonstrated that the RUC was adopting a half-hearted approach to investigating the incident.