LONDON -- A suspected Irish Republican Army bomb ripped through the busy heart of the northern English city of Manchester yesterday morning, injuring more than 200 people and providing a potentially devastating blow to fledgling Northern Ireland peace talks.
Although no group claimed responsibility for the explosion that sent thousands of shoppers fleeing in panic, British Prime Minister John Major said the bombing had all the signs of an IRA operation, a view shared by Manchester's deputy police chief.
"What is absolutely clear is that this act by a handful of fanatics will be regarded by contempt and disgust right the way around the world," Major said.
In Washington, President Clinton said in a statement he was "deeply outraged" by the explosion and labeled it a "brutal and cowardly act of terrorism."
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, expressed "shock and regret that people have been injured," but declined to take up Major's demand to condemn the bombing.
"Let's see who was involved," Adams said in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "Let's tell the world that Sinn Fein's task and challenge is to seek the restoration of the peace process."
With the IRA unwilling to declare a new cease-fire, Sinn Fein was excluded from Monday's start of talks on Northern Ireland's future. The IRA ended a 17-month cease-fire shortly before a Feb. 9 bombing in east London that left two dead, and it has admitted to planting four other subsequent bombs.
To those politicians who favor Northern Ireland's continued union with Britain, the blast was yet another sign that the IRA was bent on its guerrilla war to end British rule and create a united Ireland.
"It looks as if the IRA has gone back to its tried and tested means of persuading the government, and have started bombing the mainland again," Peter Robinson, deputy head of the Democratic Unionist Party, told Sky television.
But Gary McMichael, head of the Ulster Democratic Party, which is linked with Protestant paramilitaries, called for calm, saying, "I would hope we could all show continued restraint to keep the peace process alive."
Yesterday's blast showed that terrorists have an uncanny ability to elude Britain's security forces, which were on high alert in London.
Queen Elizabeth II was celebrating her birthday with a ceremonial review of her troops, while tens of thousands of people were flocking to Wembley Stadium for the England-Scotland soccer match in the European championships.
Manchester apparently presented an inviting target. The city center was jammed with shoppers, plus visiting soccer fans enjoying a respite before the European championship match between Germany and Russia, scheduled here for today.
A television station received a coded warning from a man with an Irish accent 80 minutes before the blast. Demolition experts were called in to survey a suspect van that had received a parking ticket earlier in the morning. They raced away from the 7 1/2 -ton vehicle seconds before the 11: 20 a.m. explosion.
"It was a massive explosion the like of which we have only seen in London in the past," said Manchester's deputy police chief, Malcolm Cairns.
Witnesses reported the bomb blew a large hole in the side of a shopping mall and the explosion could be heard three miles away. At least four people were seriously injured.
Michael Doherty, a construction worker, told the Manchester Evening News that the explosion unleashed "a white shower" of glass.
Silvia Glen, a store clerk, told reporters she was standing outside a door when the blast knocked her to the floor.
"They always seem to know when to do it when there are so many people," she said. "They have no thought for women and children. It's a noise I'll never forget."
Brian Johnson, a spokesman for Manchester's ambulance service, said, "Everyone was walking around in a complete daze. They were shocked and stunned."
Pub Date: 6/16/96