A MAVERICK gang of dissident republicans is being blamed for a car bomb attack which critically injured a Catholic police officer in the North yesterday.
The officer was named last night as Peadar Heffron (33). He is an Irish-speaker and captain of the PSNI's GAA team.
Last night he was in a "very serious" condition after undergoing emergency surgery.
He was wounded when a bomb detonated underneath his vehicle as he drove to work.
The bomb exploded at around 6.30am, half a mile from his home in Milltown Road, near Randalstown, Co Antrim.
Last night the savage attack was roundly condemned on both sides of the Border as the PSNI stepped up their hunt for the terrorists responsible for the blast.
Senior detectives believe a Belfast-based gang of maverick republicans organised the attack.
Officers say the members of the gang are not aligned to any of the known renegade groups, such as the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA, but have become highly active in terrorist activities in recent months.
One officer said: "This lot believe they have a better chance of staying under the radar if they remain outside the recognised groups but this attack shows they are just as ruthless and indiscriminate as the others."
The bomb exploded two miles from Antrim town, where two British soldiers were murdered by the Real IRA outside the Massereene barracks last March.
The device had been planted under the driver's seat in his blue Alfa Romeo car.
The PSNI officer leading the hunt for the terrorists, Det Chief Supt Derek Williamson, described them as "faceless, cowardly thugs" and said they had "skulked under the cover of darkness to try and kill or injure this officer".
He branded the attack as "an atrocious act of terrorism" and said the recently married officer was singled out as he drove to Woodbourne police station in west Belfast.
Constable Heffron was bleeding heavily when he was found. He was taken to Antrim Hospital for immediate surgery before being transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night led the condemnation of the bomb blast and said the attack was an act of senseless violence.
"This criminal action by a tiny minority is an attack on all of the people of this country. They will not succeed in deflecting us from the path of peace on this island," he said.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said there was no place for such mindless violence in a civilised society, while Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said he was appalled and told the attackers they represented nobody but themselves.
The North's security minister Paul Goggins said the vile attack would sicken people. He said the work of the PSNI in making towns and cities safer was in stark contrast to those who tried to murder Constable Heffron.
First Minister Peter Robinson warned that those perpetrating such attacks would not succeed in returning to the dark days of the past and said peace and democracy was the only path forward.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Constable Heffron had contributed positively to the community.
"He is an active member of the GAA and an Irish-speaker and serves the community as a member of the PSNI," Mr McGuinness said.
"The people who carry out this attack make no contribution. Their actions serve no purpose and will not further any cause," he added.
Constable Heffron's cousin, Martin Totten, told how he had seen Peadar and his wife, Fiona, shopping for groceries during the week and said the family was stunned by what had happened.
The officer, who has nine years' police service, also played a key role recently in community confidence-building and had recently discussed key issues with the public in Irish.