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Manhunt for Suspects Responsible for Car Bomb that Killed Northern Ireland Policeman

A manhunt was under way Sunday after a rookie Roman Catholic police officer was killed in a booby-trap car bombing in Northern Ireland.

Ronan Kerr, 25, had only spent weeks in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) after graduating from training college last December, Sky News reported.

He died when the device exploded under his vehicle outside his home in Omagh on Saturday afternoon.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, led widespread condemnation of the attack, describing it as a "wicked and cowardly crime."

Although no group has yet claimed responsibility, dissident republicans opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process were believed to have carried out the killing.

Kerr, who was educated in Omagh, was leaving his home to begin a shift at a police station in nearby Enniskillen when the blast happened, shortly before 4:00pm local time.

Until Saturday, such booby-trap attacks had badly maimed two other officers, but killed nobody. It was the first lethal attack on Northern Ireland security forces in more than two years.

The IRA dissidents have stressed their determination to target any Irish Catholics who join the Northern Ireland police force. Building Catholic support for the once Protestant-dominated police force is a central goal of Northern Ireland's peace process.

"Those who carried out this wicked and cowardly crime will never succeed in dragging Northern Ireland back to a dark and bloody past," Cameron said in London.

And reflecting the exceptional political solidarity in Northern Ireland today, leaders from both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community condemned the bombers and vowed to bring them to justice.

"While those behind this act seek to promote division and conflict, let us state clearly: They will fail," said Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's four-year-old unity government. "The process of peacebuilding will continue and the community is united in rejection of them."

In Dublin, newly elected Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny called the killing "a heinous and pointless act of terror."

And his justice minister, Alan Shatter, vowed that "no effort will be spared in bringing the perpetrators of this dreadful crime to justice." Many of the IRA dissidents live along the border in the Republic of Ireland.

Neighbors of the victim in Omagh — a town synonymous with the greatest horror of the entire Northern Ireland conflict — said he had just entered his car when the bomb detonated beneath his legs.

IRA dissidents committed the deadliest single bombing of the entire Northern Ireland conflict in Omagh on Aug. 15, 1998, when a car bomb detonated amid a crowd of evacuated shoppers and workers. Twenty-nine people, mostly women and children, were killed.

No dissident was ever successfully prosecuted for that attack, so the 1998 attackers remain at large.

"I feel a lot of anger that another young life has been stolen, that this has happened again in our town," said Michael Gallagher, whose only son, 21-year-old Aiden, was among the dead in 1998.

The car sustained little damage but caught fire, and neighbors doused the flames with extinguishers. 

Several IRA splinter groups remain active in Northern Ireland. Anti-terrorist authorities estimate they have fewer than 500 members combined and no capacity to mount a sustained campaign of violence, only an occasional ability to kill. Police say the dissidents fund their activities through local rackets, including fuel and cigarette smuggling.

In March 2009, dissidents shot to death two off-duty British soldiers and a policeman. Those were the first slayings of British security forces since 1998, the year of Northern Ireland's peace accord.

Last year, dissidents detonated half a dozen car bombs outside security installations, businesses and a courthouse but caused little damage and wounded nobody seriously.

In the 1980s, IRA weapons engineers designed under-car booby trap bombs specifically to kill the driver. They typically were attached with magnets on the outside of the car, under the driver's seat and would detonate when the car drove up or down a slope. But in Saturday's attack, the bomb appeared to explode immediately after the target got into the car.

Since 2007, IRA dissidents have planted dozens of such booby-trap bombs under the private cars of police officers. Most bombs failed to detonate, and several dud devices fell off onto roadways. Two policemen did lose their legs in such attacks in May 2008 and January 2010.

Northern Ireland's police force has been radically transformed over the past decade in a major success for the peace process. A policy of favoring Catholic recruits helped to turn the force from 8 percent Catholic in 2001 to 30 percent Catholic today.

But Catholic recruits remain particularly vulnerable to attacks by IRA dissidents, who chiefly live in working-class Catholic areas. Catholic police officers are unable to live or safely visit relatives in those areas.

The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people in a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Most IRA members renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. Those peace moves cleared the way in 2007 for Protestants and Catholics, led by Sinn Fein, to forge a coalition government of former foes.