Irish Republican Army dissidents detonated their first car bomb in nearly a decade Monday night, damaging a courthouse but injuring nobody in an attack designed to rattle Northern Ireland's peace process.
A local hospital and several businesses received warning calls from IRA dissidents after an explosives-packed vehicle was rammed into the gates of the empty courthouse in Newry, a Northern Ireland border town midway between Belfast and Dublin, at about 10 p.m. (2200 GMT).
Police said they still were evacuating nearby streets when the bomb exploded a half-hour later. The local police commander, Chief Inspector Sam Cordner, said it was "a sheer miracle" that nobody in the surrounding area was seriously wounded or killed.
IRA dissidents opposed to Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord had not successfully exploded a car bomb since 2001. Since then more than a dozen car bombs have failed to detonate or been intercepted by police before they could reach their targets.
Roads blocked off
Police blocked off all roads near the courthouse, which is near the disused canal that runs through the center of Newry. It wasn't immediately clear whether the blast caused any major damage to the court building or other nearby businesses, which include a popular pub.
A Newry politician, Dominic Bradley, said he tried to see the damage for himself but was prevented from getting too close. He said local residents in the predominantly Irish-nationalist town were sickened by the dissidents' efforts to keep alive an IRA campaign that claimed nearly 1,800 lives from 1970 to a 1997 cease-fire.
"It was wrong and senseless then and it is wrong now," Bradley said. He said Newry residents "are very angry and they want the people responsible taken out of circulation and brought to justice."
The blast coincides with increasing efforts by rival Irish Catholic and British Protestant parties to strengthen their coalition government for Northern Ireland. Such power-sharing is the central achievement of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
The Belfast coalition's often-bickering factions reached a compromise agreement Feb. 5 to create a new Justice Department for Northern Ireland by April 12. The department would take control of the province's police and legal system away from Britain. The IRA dissidents oppose any political efforts to boost Irish Catholic support for law and order in the predominantly Protestant territory.
Lawmaker Peter Weir from the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, said the Newry bombers were "clearly threatened" by the Justice Department agreement and wider Catholic-Protestant cooperation on policing matters.
"It is vital that the community as a whole help stamp out their activities once and for all by giving the police full co-operation and information on this terrible crime," Weir said.
Newry is the major town neighboring South Armagh, a rural border region that has long been a power base for the outlawed IRA and its dissident offshoots. Its courthouse is heavily fortified, including a thick exterior wall designed to blunt the effects of bombs.
IRA dissidents have repeatedly tried to kill police officers and other law-and-order officials in South Armagh in recent weeks.
On Friday, IRA dissidents abandoned an unfired mortar in a car opposite a police base in the South Armagh border village of Keady. Such mortars in the past have been used to attack bases and the armored vehicles that police still must use in the area.
Last month, two other South Armagh police stations suffered gunshots through their perimeter fences, but nobody was hit.
In September, British Army experts safely defused a 600-pound (275-kilogram) bomb hidden on a South Armagh roadside that was designed to be remotely triggered when police or troops came near.