BELFAST — Northern Ireland's first minister condemned Friday a car bomb outside a police station as an "evil and cowardly attack", as security forces warned of the highest threat here for 12 years.
The bomb exploded in Newtownhamilton, County Armagh, at about 11:25 pm (2225 GMT) Thursday, said a spokeswoman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, adding that two people, including an elderly woman, were slightly injured.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but security forces had warned hours earlier that dissident republicans now posed the biggest threat to security here since the Omagh bombing in 1998, which killed 29 people.
"This is an evil and cowardly attack by people who have nothing to offer but murder and mayhem," said First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which shares power in the devolved administration here.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, from the republican Sinn Fein party, added that the attack -- which came just two weeks before Britain's general election on May 6 -- would not affect the peace process.
"Whoever carried this out offers nothing but hardship, division and pain. We cannot allow them to define our future. They will not break the will of the community," he said.
The police station was unoccupied when the blast went off -- the police had been on their way into town at the time -- and the alarm was raised by local firemen who heard a series of gunshots before spotting a suspicious vehicle.
It was the second bombing in Northern Ireland since the handover of sensitive policing and justice powers earlier this month from London to Belfast, a vital step on the long-troubled province's path to peace.
A bomb exploded near the headquarters of Britain's MI5 security agency in a Belfast suburb on April 12, just minutes after the powers were transferred.
Nobody was seriously injured in the attack, which was claimed by the dissident Republican IRA.
Thursday's attack was also the second attempt to detonate a car bomb outside the Newtownhamilton police station this month. The first, on April 13, was defused by the army.
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin deplored the latest bomb as a "reckless and senseless attack", saying: "Violence and coercion serve no purpose in modern Ireland other than to delay reconciliation."
The recent attacks, which included one on the Newry courthouse and one on the policing board headquarters in Belfast, have sent shudders through the security services on both sides of the Irish border.
"This is probably as severe a situation as we have seen since that Real IRA bombing campaign of 1997 going into 1998," a senior police source said Thursday, referring to the attacks that culminated in the Omagh bombing.
"It feels to us, just looking at it in every way, that this has picked up in terms of intensity and severity."
More than 3,500 people died in around three decades of civil strife in Northern Ireland between Catholics who wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland and Protestants who wanted to stay within Britain.
The violence largely ended with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which paved the way for the current power-sharing administration between the Protestant DUP and the Catholic Sinn Fein parties.
The main paramilitary groups including the IRA have laid down their arms, but sporadic violence has continued to plague the province, including the killing of two British soldiers and a policeman last year.
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