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IRA dissident car bomb hits Londonderry businesses

A dissident Irish Republican Army car bomb damaged a hotel, bank and other businesses but caused no injuries Tuesday in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry, the sixth such attack this year in the British territory.

Analysts said the middle-of-the-night blast — which blew out window frames and glass in several buildings, doing particular damage to the bank — appeared to have been timed to undermine the city's major Sinn Fein politician, Martin McGuinness.

McGuinness, who is also the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's cross-community government, was attending the annual conference Tuesday of the ruling Conservative Party — long a target for IRA violence before the outlawed group's 1997 cease-fire.

McGuinness, a former IRA commander himself, condemned the dissidents as violence addicts and political cavemen.

"These conflict junkies are attempting to drive a city living very much for the future, back to the past," McGuinness said at the Conservative gathering in Birmingham, England. "People ... are horrified that there are still these Neanderthals within our society."

The Real IRA splinter group later claimed responsibility for the attack in a coded telephone call to the news desk of a city newspaper, the Derry Journal.

The dissidents telephoned warnings to local businesses, giving the police about an hour to evacuate the area — including a nursing home — before the explosion.

The Londonderry mayor, Colm Eastwood, said he was on the scene when the bomb detonated.

"The car's spare tire landed about 10 yards away from me," Eastwood said.

"I don't know what these people are trying to achieve," he said of the dissidents, who operate from Londonderry's working-class Catholic districts. "This city will not be defeated by a minority of people who think they'll free Ireland by bombing hotels."

Analysts said the Real IRA may have targeted the hotel, in part, because it is hosting a meeting later this week between local politicians and police officers in Londonderry, a predominantly Catholic city.

Building cooperation between the traditionally Protestant police force and Catholic leaders is a central goal of peacemaking. Dissidents have repeatedly sought to harm the effort by trying to kill Catholic officers and police-liaison officials and by offering themselves as a source of vigilante justice in the roughest Catholic areas, where residents still feel communal pressure not to talk to police.

The governments of Britain and Ireland denounced the bombers.

"The perpetrators are trying to undermine the future for our young people. The vast majority of people on this island will not let this misguided few dictate or disrupt that future," said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

Britain's MI5 spy agency and government have warned recently of an increased risk of resumed IRA dissident violence in England. The dissidents have not attempted any attacks in England since August 2001, when they car-bombed a shopping center west of London, wounding 11.

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. The IRA-linked Sinn Fein party was permitted to enter a cross-community government with leaders of the territory's British Protestant majority as part of long-running negotiations.

The dissidents' efforts to disrupt power-sharing with violence have caused few deaths since the single deadliest incident of the entire conflict — their 1989 car-bomb attack on a crowd in the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, mostly women and children.

Last year, dissidents shot to death two off-duty British soldiers and a policeman in Northern Ireland, and since have wounded several off-duty police officers or their relatives by planting booby-trap bombs under their cars.

This year's car bombs have been smaller than traditional IRA car bombs. They have caused mostly superficial damage to a courthouse, police stations, businesses and the regional MI5 headquarters east of Belfast.