Car bomb shakes Northern Ireland

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A car bomb exploded Tuesday outside a shopping centre in Northern Ireland, causing substantial damage but no injuries, police said, in the latest example of an upsurge in violence in the province.

The blast occurred just after midnight outside a bank in the complex in Londonderry and follows a string of recent attacks blamed on dissident republicans seeking to undermine hard-won peace in the British province.

Police received a warning and a security cordon was set up around the DaVinci retail complex before the device exploded shortly after midnight (2300 GMT).

"At this stage there are no reported injuries. However, substantial damage has been caused to the retail complex and to the car," a spokeswoman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.

Dozens of nearby houses, a retirement home and a number of businesses were evacuated.

The bomb exploded just hours before Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of the republican Sinn Fein party, attended the annual conference of Britain's ruling Conservative party for the first time.

His appearance was highly sensitive because McGuinness was once a leading member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which bombed the Tory conference in Brighton, southern England, in 1984 killing five people and narrowly missing then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Speaking to AFP at the conference Tuesday in Birmingham, central England, McGuinness said the timing of the bomb was a "coincidence."

"We're here in the aftermath of a bomb explosion in my city last night which I unreservedly condemn, carried out by conflict junkies who are intent on driving a people who want to move forward to step back to the past," he said.

The British minister for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, said the bombing "may have been" linked to the Conservative conference, but was probably a coincidence.

He told reporters in Birmingham that those responsible for such attacks were "very small in number" but "they're determined and they're dangerous."

The blast will evoke memories of darker times in Londonderry, which witnessed much bloodshed and suffering during Northern Ireland's Troubles, as the three decades of civil unrest in the province are known.

The city, also known as Derry, was the scene of Bloody Sunday, one of Northern Ireland's darkest episodes in which 13 civilians were killed by British soldiers when they opened fire on a civil rights march in 1972.

The province has been hit by almost 30 attacks of varying nature this year, including a series of car bombings or attempted bombings in August which targeted an army major, a policewoman and a civilian police worker.

Although no one has died in the attacks, they have fuelled fears of a return to the violence that pitched Catholic nationalists against pro-British Protestant unionists, and left about 3,500 people dead.

The conflict was largely brought to an end in the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which paved the way for a historic power-sharing government in which McGuinness works alongside First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP).

Last month, British security services raised the threat level from Northern Ireland-related terrorism to suggest an attack was now a "strong possibility," Home Secretary Theresa May announced.

The head of Britain's domestic security service MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned recently that extremists opposed to the peace process in Belfast could launch fresh attacks on the mainland.

© 2010 AFP

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