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Northern Ireland: Bombing Puts Peace Process To Its Toughest Test

London, 17 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Northern Ireland peace process faces its most severe test following a weekend bombing that killed 28 people and injured 200 in the deadliest terrorist attack in the British-ruled province for almost 30 years.

The 250-kilogram car bomb ripped through crowds of shoppers on Saturday afternoon in the small town of Omagh west of the capital, Belfast. Most of the dead were women and children. Eleven people are still in a critical condition in hospital today.

No one has claimed responsibility but police and politicians have blamed a small splinter group of Irish republican extremists who they say want to wreck the recent Northern Ireland peace accords.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who strongly backs the peace accords, last night blamed the blast on a group calling itself the "Real IRA." This is a breakaway group of a guerrilla organization which has carried out many shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland, but has observed a ceasefire for the past 13 months.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew home from a holiday in Italy to declare in Belfast that the "future belongs to the decent people of Northern Ireland" not "to the criminals and psychopaths."

George Mitchell, a former U.S. Senator who mediated the recent Northern Ireland peace accords, said the bombing was carried out by "a very tiny minority of cowards and murderers," but he doubted it would have a "fatal effect" on the peace process. It comes just over two weeks before President Bill Clinton is to arrive in Northern Ireland to give new impetus to the peace process.

Northern Ireland has been torn apart for years by a sporadic terrorist war between rival paramilitary forces of the minority Catholic and majority Protestant communities. More than 3,400 people have died since the present violence erupted in 1969.

The largely Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland, and to unite the province with the Irish Republic to the south. It is opposed by Protestant militants who are determined to remain British.

Hopes of a "historic" settlement in Northern Ireland rose earlier this year when Catholic and Protestant militants joined for the first time to back plans for a new power-sharing assembly. The fact that the deal was backed by Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the IRA -- gave hope that Northern Ireland's long nightmare might be over. The so-called Good Friday peace pact gathered momentum on May 22 when voters in both parts of Ireland voted to support it.

But splinter groups unhappy with the compromises required by the agreement have carried out a number of shootings, bombings and arson attacks -- climaxing in Saturday's murderous attack.

British security forces have warned for months that the Real IRA, the group of hard-line IRA dissidents that is the chief suspect in the Omagh bombing, is a major threat to the peace process. The group is linked with the sister of Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker who won world headlines in 1982 when he starved himself to death in a British jail in a bid to secure political status for IRA prisoners.

The group, said to have seized a large amount of explosives from the IRA, is reported to number about 100 IRA dissident activists who feel that the Good Friday peace agreement is a betrayal of their cause because it will not lead directly to a united Ireland.

The Omagh bombing comes just ahead of next month's session of Northern Ireland's new assembly when the political parties will have to agree on a new government to run the troubled province.

Analysts say the attack is a reminder that small groups with little or no political backing may still be able to derail the peace process. The aim of the bombers was probably two-fold -- to provoke bloody reprisals from Protestant paramilitary groups, and to encourage a heavy-handed response from Northern Ireland police. If either scenario happens -- or if there are further bombings in the streets -- the peace process may unravel.