Police are trawling through hours of CCTV footage in the hunt for a man in a black hooded top suspected of leaving a bomb outside a busy restaurant in Belfast.
Vigilant passers-by who discovered the dissident republican device minutes before it detonated in the packed Cathedral Quarter district on Friday night have been hailed by the PSNI for averting a tragedy.
Officers, acting on misleading information provided in a telephone bomb warning to a Belfast newspaper, had been evacuating people from a hotel 150 metres away from where a sports bag containing the bomb had been placed.
Once informed about the holdall by members of the public, they were able to refocus the security operation on the area immediately around it.
Dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann has claimed responsibility for the latest in a recent spate of terror attacks by extremist republicans opposed to the peace process.
Detective Chief Inspector Justyn Galloway, the PSNI officer leading the investigation into the blast, outlined the deadly potential of the bomb.
“This device fully functioned,” he said.
“The device contained flammable liquid and explosives and it has some similarities to devices that have been used before by dissident republicans.”
The PSNI yesterday released an image of the black Slazenger bag in which the bomb was contained, taken moments before it exploded.
Mr Galloway praised those who noticed the bag and contacted police.
“Members of the public were vigilant and they did come forward and speak to police and it clearly averted injuries last night,” he said.
He appealed to anyone who may have seen a suspect carrying the holdall in and around the Cathedral Quarter area.
“Did they see a male wearing a black hoody carrying a black Slazenger bag in and around 6pm last night,” he said.
“If they saw this person or anyone acting suspiciously I would ask them to come forward and speak to detectives.”
The lead detective also commended the actions of the police and staff in the restaurants, bars and the hotel who assisted with the evacuation.
He said analysis of security camera footage from the area was a key priority for the police.
“Detectives are out today and have been out through the night.
“It is a built-up area – there is a large amount of cameras and that is definitely one line of inquiry we are following up,” he said.
Security measures are being ramped up in Belfast city centre following the explosion.
With thousands expected to hit the capital’s high streets on what is to be one of the busiest Christmas shopping weekends of the year, police have appealed for vigilance. Businesses are continuing to urge people to support trade by venturing into the centre.
Police have been stopping cars and checking car boots at the entrance to CastleCourt shopping centre since last month.
Other security checkpoints were set up throughout the city after masked dissidents forced a man to drive a car bomb to another shopping centre – one that faces a police station –in late November.
That 60kg (132lb) device only partially exploded and no-one was injured.
In a separate statement yesterday, the PSNI requested members of the public in north and west Belfast particularly to be vigilant over the coming weekend and to report any suspicious behaviour.
The scene of the blast was cleared on Saturday morning with little sign of the explosion.