A bomb explosion in the centre of Belfast on one of the city's busiest nights of the year was an attempt to kill innocents, Stormont's Justice Minister has said.
David Ford joined Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in condemning the attack in the city's bustling Cathedral Quarter district - a blast blamed on dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
Hundreds of people were in the process of being evacuated from bars and restaurants, establishments packed with Christmas partygoers, when the device detonated just before 7pm this evening. There were no reports of any injuries.
There had been a security operation ongoing at the time, prompted by an earlier telephone warning to a Belfast newsroom.
Police described the explosion as "small" but said they were not yet in a position to determine what sort of bomb it was. It is understood it was not a car bomb device.
Security has been ramped up in the city since a man was forced by masked dissidents to drive a car bomb to a shopping centre that faces a police station last month. That 60kg (132lb) device only partially exploded and no-one was injured.
"Yet again we see a reckless attempt to kill and injure innocent people in Belfast," Mr Ford said.
"The people carrying out these attacks have set out no reason and explained no cause for their acts of senseless violence. Their only aim seems to be to injure and disrupt. They ignore the strength of public support for normality and peace, especially at this Christmas season."
Ms Villiers said it was a "deplorable" attack on the people of Belfast.
"This was a reckless attack aimed at a busy entertainment area of the city," she said.
"On one of busiest nights of the year with people enjoying the festivities ahead of Christmas, as well as all those in the final stages of Christmas shopping, it shows that these terrorists are stooping to a new low.
"This small minority want to drain the economic life from Belfast - but we will not let them succeed."
Police have urged the public, particularly business owners, to be on the look out for suspicious objects.
In November dissidents were also blamed when a bus driver in Londonderry was forced to drive a bomb to a police station in the city. She abandoned the vehicle before reaching the destination and the device did not explode.
While the threat posed by the violent extremists has remained classed as severe, police have acknowledged a "surge" in activity has taken place in recent weeks.