London, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An Irish republican splinter group has provoked fury in Northern Ireland by admitting responsibility for a bombing that killed 28 people at the weekend, in the most deadly terrorist attack there in almost 30 years.
The self-styled "Real IRA" said it placed a large car bomb in the small market town of Omagh, west of Belfast, which ripped through a crowd of Saturday afternoon shoppers, killing mostly women and children, and injuring some 200. Five men, allegedly connected with the group, are being held by police.
The bombing caused outrage on both sides of the Irish border, and threatens to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process.
The Real IRA is a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a guerrilla group that has fought a long terrorist campaign in a bid to end British rule in Northern Ireland, but recently agreed to join the peace drive, and committed itself to a ceasefire.
The breakaway group, which split from the IRA in November, sees the IRA decision to join the peace process as a betrayal of the republican cause as it will not lead directly to a united Ireland.
The group, thought to number fewer than 100 dissidents, said in a telephoned statement yesterday it wanted to apologize for causing the casualties in Omagh, adding that the 250-kg car bomb had been aimed at a commercial target rather than at taking life.
The statement described the bombing as "part of an ongoing war" aimed at expelling the British from Northern Ireland.
But Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said the statement was "a pathetic attempt to apologize for and excuse mass murder." She said the "Real IRA" were "murderers, pure and simple" and people would have "absolute contempt" for the apology.
The statement was also condemned by community leaders in Omagh where some 5,000 people last night held a candlelit vigil with prayers and hymns at the site of the bombing.
Earlier, there were emotional scenes at the first of the funerals: a 30-year-old woman who died while pregnant with twins, and that of her 18-month-old daughter. More funerals will be held today.
Unusually, the bombing was unequivocally condemned by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the mainstream IRA, which in the past has merely expressed "regret" for republican killings.
London and Dublin are keen to ensure the bombing does not wreck the Northern Ireland peace process, aimed at resolving a bitter sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants that has claimed 3,400 lives since the present troubles erupted in 1969.
The peace process began in earnest in April when representatives of the warring factions in Northern Ireland, including the mainly Catholic IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups, agreed to replace terrorism with a political talks aimed at securing a negotiated solution.
This agreement, hammered out after 22 months of bargaining chaired by a former U.S. Senator, George Mitchell, was strongly backed by the British and Irish governments, and U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is due in Northern Ireland in two weeks' time.
The so-called Good Friday agreement gathered momentum in May when voters in both north and south voted to endorse it.
Britain and Ireland are now expected to introduce tougher security measures -- a move aimed at defeating the dissident republican terrorists and underpinning the Good Friday agreement. But analysts say the peace process may unravel if Protestant terror groups respond to the Omagh bomb, or if Northern Ireland police move in a heavy-handed way against Catholic republicans. This would be a serious setback for Northern Ireland, which, according to one commentator, badly needs a peace agreement to "lift the awful burden of history from a lovely, but violent place."