Dissident Republicans caused mayhem in Belfast city centre on Friday night when a bomb exploded outside a busy restaurant – after they had told police it had been placed beside a hotel.

Officers were evacuating thousands of people from the busy Cathedral Quarter district of the city when the device went off.

No one was injured when the bomb exploded prematurely as police responded to a bomb warning phoned to a local newspaper.

Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent Alan McCrum said the bomb could have killed or maimed festive revellers after the misleading warning.

He told the Irish Independent that his officers were evacuating Christmas revellers when the device exploded.

The chief superintendent confirmed the caller ‘wrongly claimed the device had been left at a hotel, when it was actually placed on the pavement beside a restaurant’.

Blame for the ‘small’ bomb has already been attached to Dissident Republicans.

McCrum said: “The perpetrators of this attack were totally reckless. This was an attack on the people of Belfast going about their normal lives on a busy night for socialising in the city.

“This attack ruined the night out for these people. Those who carried out this attack have nothing to offer except disruption and destruction.

“Police would appeal for continued community support and vigilance on the run up to Christmas in seeking to disrupt or deter any further attack on the city.”

Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford described the attack as an attempt to kill innocents.

Minister Ford said: “Yet again we see a reckless attempt to kill and injure innocent people in Belfast.

“The people carrying out these attacks have set out no reason and explained no cause for their acts of senseless violence. Their only aim seems to be to injure and disrupt. They ignore the strength of public support for normality and peace, especially at this Christmas season.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers branded the bomb attack as ‘deplorable’.

She said: “This was a reckless attack aimed at a busy entertainment area of the city.

“On one of busiest nights of the year with people enjoying the festivities ahead of Christmas, as well as all those in the final stages of Christmas shopping, it shows that these terrorists are stooping to a new low.

“This small minority want to drain the economic life from Belfast but we will not let them succeed.”

Church leaders issued a joint statement condemning the attack.

Dean of Belfast Reverend John Mann and the Bishop of Connor Alan Abernethy said:  “We are profoundly saddened at the attempt to disrupt and endanger the people of Belfast.”