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 said.
Hundreds of people were in the process of being evacuated from bars and restaurants packed with Christmas partygoers, when the device detonated just before 7pm last night. There were no reports of any injuries.
There had been a security operation ongoing at the time, prompted by a telephone warning to a Belfast newsroom.
Police described the explosion as "small" but said they could not yet say what sort of bomb it was. The device was in a box that was left on a pavement.
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. It only partially exploded and no one was hurt.
"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 explained no cause for their acts of senseless violence. Their only aim seems to be to injure and disrupt."
Ms Villiers said it was a "deplorable" attack on the people of Belfast.