HEAD shop workers discovered two pipe bombs on their doorsteps in two separate premises as they arrived for work.
A busy town centre was forced to shut down yesterday after the bombs -- both viable devices -- were found outside the stores that sell controversial legal 'highs' in Athlone, Co Westmeath.
It is the first time a head shop has been targeted outside the capital following two arson attacks on stores that sell legal drugs in Dublin city centre last month.
Gardai evacuated scores of residents, workers and early morning shoppers after they were alerted to the devices at Myth and Magic in Irishtown and Eclipse on Mardyke Street at around 9.45am.
The Army bomb disposal team was called to the scene and made the devices safe before removing them for further examination. The pipe bombs have now been handed over to gardai for further investigation.
Officers are also examining CCTV footage as they look for clues.
The owner of Myth and Magic, which also has outlets in Longford and Tullamore, said yesterday she had operated "unmolested" in Ireland for five years.
The woman, who did not wish to be named, pointed out that products sold at her store were all legally cleared by customs when imported.
Supt Aidan Glacken, who is leading the probe, said it was the first such incident targeting these premises. "The only other matters brought to our attention related to public concerns about substances being sold at these shops but there had been no prior threat," he said.
Detectives were interviewing the head shop owners and other witnesses yesterday but said the investigation was at an "early stage".
Gardai refused to comment on whether the attacks had any link to dissident republicans who are working with criminal drug gangs. "We want to widen our net as much as possible, we're looking at every possibility," added Supt Glacken.
Senator Nicky McFadden urged people to "leave the law to the gardai" yesterday after her office was evacuated during the incident.
The incident comes ahead of a public meeting in Athlone tomorrow to give parents information on herbal and synthetic substances on sale in head shops.
The Athlone Drugs Awareness Group is holding the event in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel at 7.30pm tomorrow.