Omagh: A Northern Ireland policeman was killed in a car bomb attack which leaders on all sides vowed would not be allowed to derail the province's delicate peace process.
Ronan Kerr, 25, a Catholic recruit who only completed his training three weeks ago, was killed on Saturday by the booby-trap under his car outside his home in Omagh, the scene of Northern Ireland's worst terror atrocity.
Responsibility for the attack has not yet been claimed. However, senior politicians pointed towards dissident republicans, who oppose the power-sharing peace process.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said it was a "Neanderthal" attempt to scare Catholics off from joining the province's police service.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he utterly condemned the murder.
"Those who carried out this wicked and cowardly crime will never succeed in dragging Northern Ireland back to a dark and bloody past," he said in a statement.
"Their actions are rejected by the overwhelming majority of people right from all parts of the community."
Northern Ireland's people "have said time and again they want a peaceful, shared future," he added.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, helped facilitate negotiations that led to the "Good Friday" peace agreement in 1998 condemned the murder, calling it a "cowardly act".
"The perpetrators of this cowardly act represent the failures of the past, and their actions run counter to the achievements, aspirations and collective will of the people of Northern Ireland," Hillary said in a statement.
"Our thoughts are with the family and loved ones of this young man who lost his life because of his decision to serve the entire community," Hillary said.
"We echo the unequivocal condemnations by Northern Ireland's politicians and call on anyone with information to cooperate fully and expediently with the Police Service of Northern Ireland."
The victim is only the second member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to be killed since it succeeded the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001 as part of the peace process.
The first was shot dead during an outbreak of deadly attacks by republican dissidents in March 2009 that also saw two British soldiers gunned down, the first such killings in 12 years.
At Omagh police station, PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott described Kerr as a "modern-day hero" who had joined the service to serve the community impartially.
"Tragedy has returned to Omagh. I have no words to describe the awfulness of the events and my abhorrence and anger at this wasted life."
The timing, target and location of the attack all bear significance.
Since the PSNI was formed, growing numbers of Catholics have signed up. While mainstream republicans such as Sinn Fein -- the largest Catholic party -- support the PSNI, dissidents see it as an arm of the British state.
The Northern Ireland Assembly dissolved last week ahead of elections to be held on May 05.
It was the first time that the devolved, power-sharing administration -- a keystone in the peace process -- had completed a full four-year term.
Omagh was the scene of the deadliest attack of the Troubles, the three decades of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics which was largely ended by the April 1998 peace accords.
The Real Irish Republican Army splinter group killed 29 people, including a pregnant woman, and wounded around 200 others in the August 1998 attack.
Robinson, of the Protestant-backed Democratic Unionist Party, said the booby-trap was "an evil act from a very small section of the community, a miniscule group who have not entered the new era with the rest of us”.
"They want to do as much as they can to disrupt our democratic process with elections underway and I believe the whole community will stand up and stand against them," he said.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, said the perpetrators had "betrayed" the Catholic community and "set themselves against the will of the people of Ireland".
"While those behind this act seek to promote division and conflict let us state clearly -- they will fail. The process of peace building will continue."
The threat level for terrorism related to Northern Ireland, set by Britain's Home Office Interior Ministry, is at "severe" in the province, the second-highest of five levels, indicating that an attack is considered highly likely.
First Published: Sunday, April 03, 2011, 09:30