Northern Ireland’s top police officer has warned of a surge in dissident republican activity after a bomb partially exploded under a shopping centre.
A detonator went off as a bomb disposal team approached the car to deal with the device, but it failed to trigger the 130lb (59kg) of home-made explosives inside a beer keg, police said.
The keg was hidden in the back of a silver Renault Laguna.
The attack on the Victoria Centre signalled a heightened security threat to the city in the run-up to Christmas by terrorists opposed to the peace process.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum said: “It could have been catastrophic for Belfast and Northern Ireland.”
The driver was stopped in the republican Ardoyne district by three masked men wearing boilersuits who ordered him to take the Renault Laguna to the car park. After abandoning the vehicle, he ran across the street to the nearby Musgrave Street police station and raised the alarm.
The Laganside court complex and dozens of shops and offices are situated nearby.
Hundreds of people had to be evacuated from restaurants and a cinema as British Army bomb disposal experts were called in. The detonator went off as they prepared to examine the car.
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott said: “The philosophy of these groups is simply hatred.”
“There has been a surge recently in dissident republican activity.
“We have seen letter bombs, under-car booby traps, blast bombs, hijackings.
“These groupings are trying to bring themselves to notice again. They seem to be in some form of bizarre competition to make sure that they have a profile.”
Mr Baggott promised extra police patrols but said there would be no going back to the past and no "ring of steel" like that seen during the North's 30-year conflict.
Assistant chief constable Drew Harris said the partial explosion shortly after 11pm last night caused damage to the car but none beyond the vehicle, which is being forensically examined.
“This was a terrifying experience for that poor driver because as he was going along obviously the device is situated right behind him and he is driving along with a live device which if it had detonated, even partially, would have caused him severe injury and even death,” he said.
“A full explosion would have killed him outright. It is a reckless thing to plant such a large device in the city centre.
“We are viewing this as an effort to try and really disrupt the city centre in the run-up to Christmas.
“It is many years since we have had such a direct attack in the city centre of such scale, we are asking people to be vigilant. People will see an increased police presence in the city centre.”