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Belfast police raise security to deter IRA bombers

DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland’s police heightened security Tuesday, deploying roadblocks in Belfast to deter potential car bomb attacks by Irish Republican Army militants, following the first such failed attack on the capital in a decade.

Sunday’s 130-pound bomb failed to detonate after being parked at the underground entrance to Belfast’s biggest, glitziest shopping center. The attack — the latest and largest in a series of failed bomb attacks using buses, cars, booby traps and letter bombs — illustrated how Northern Ireland cannot take its peace for granted.

Police commanders and security analysts warned that IRA splinter groups opposed to the outlawed group’s 1997 cease-fire have increased their bombing efforts in the run-up to Christmas, a holiday that Irish republican extremists long have targeted in hopes of harming Northern Ireland’s economy.

But reaction to the latest attack underscored how much Belfast has changed since the major IRA faction, the Provisionals, renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. Attacks by today’s IRA remnants are distinguished by their small scale, poor resources and lack of success.

While police were more visible Tuesday, they patrolled on bicycles and in normal cars, not armored personnel carriers. And central Belfast remained a hive of shopping, business and tourist activity focused on an outdoor Christmas market, scenes unrecognizable from the 1990s, when workers fled a lifeless city center by early evening.

Belfast Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, a member of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party who once supported Provisional IRA violence, met police commanders to discuss how to increase security without deterring business. Since gaining office in June, O Muilleoir has made reconciliation with the territory’s British Protestant majority his top priority and describes IRA die-hards as the enemy of the people.

“The people who attacked Belfast want to wreck Christmas, and the rest of us aren’t going to let them,” he said.

While IRA splinter groups have committed violence in spurts ever since Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998, police have identified an upward trend in recent weeks. Statistics show that October featured 16 attempted bombings, the worst level in three years, including four letter bombs addressed to top policemen and Britain’s minister responsible for the province. All were spotted by Royal Mail screening technology or office secretaries.

Already this month, a former police officer dodged likely death in Belfast by spotting a booby-trap bomb under his car. In Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, suspected IRA members twice have handed bombs to innocent motorists and ordered them to deliver the weapon to the city’s police headquarters.

Unusually, both refused. A bus driver abandoned her bus at a stop instead, while a fast-food delivery man fled on foot from the bombers.

That would rarely have happened in the past, when the much bigger Provisional IRA deployed credible menace and death threats to ensure cooperation. Provisionals typically would take the driver’s family hostage, or follow the driver in a second vehicle and threaten to detonate the bomb by remote control if the car wasn’t parked outside the specified target.

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