An incendiary device was last night understood to have ignited and then been carried out of a central Belfast shop.
A series of tape cordons and police cars greeted those trying to pass along Cornmarket or the High Street during the evening, as the Army and police dealt with what was the latest in a string of security alerts.
Military technicians appeared to focus their attentions on an object on the street close to Dunnes Stores, as onlookers watched from a distance.
Police said that the drama unfolded at around 6.45pm, after a suspected incendiary device was discovered in a shop.
It is understood it ignited, and that it was then carried outside by staff.
Ambulance crews did not attend, and there were no reports of any injuries.
The alert came within hours of a press conference held by Northern Ireland’s chief constable at City Hall, in which he said police were doing everything possible to thwart such attacks.
It comes after a small explosion in the Cathedral Quarter on Friday, and a failed car bomb attack beside Victoria Square shopping centre late last month.
One of those who had watched yesterday’s scenes almost from the outset was Ryan, 21 and from the Falls Road, who would not give his surname.
He had come out of a computer shop in Victoria Square at around 7pm only to be met with a number of blocked-off streets.
He said: “Typical. It’s never going to change. All they’re doing is affecting jobs, really. It just makes you think: why would any tourists want to come to Belfast?”
Glyn Roberts, from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, which represents around 20 smaller-scale businesses in the greater city centre area, told the News Letter: “Every hour is precious in terms of trading in the run up to Christmas. For another night, traders have lost customers, and sadly Belfast City Centre is in the headlines for the wrong reasons.”
However, he added there was an attitude of “determination” among shoppers and businesses.
“We’re not going to let the people behind these attacks ruin our Christmas,” he said.
“We simply can’t allow the people behind this bomb to win. I think these people need to get that message very strongly.”
MLA Alban Maginness, the SDLP’s justice spokesman, condemned those behind the attack as “anti-Belfast”.
“It beggars belief that following the placing of a bomb in the Cathedral Quarter on Friday night, that Belfast would be faced with yet another attempted act of wanton destruction. To place an incendiary device in a busy shopping area is both reckless and irresponsible and serves no rational purpose.
The Alliance Party likewise weighed in , with its south Belfast MLA Anna Lo also sending a statement in which she declared herself “sickened” by the latest incident; something which she laid at the door of “evil individuals”.
Police were yesterday advising city centre firms to check their premises thoroughly in the wake of the incident. To contact police with any information, ring 0845 600 8000, or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.