IRA dissidents - backed by IRA veterans - now pose a major threat to peace in Northern Ireland.

That's according to the Independent Monitoring Commission which says the security threat is the highest since the 1996 Good Friday Peace Agreement.

There are mounting fears that the dissident groups are planning a major atrocity to wreck peace deal.

There has been a surge of violence in the North since March. Two British soldiers and a PSNI police officer have been shot dead and there has been a spate of failed bomb attempts on security forces.

An informed source said: "The fact is that the dissident groups are becoming more desperate the more the peace process continues to move forward.

"We have moved beyond the politics of the last atrocity. The only thing that will bring them back is if the process stalls completely and a political vacuum emerges."

Meanwhile, the commission says 20 people have been injured in shootings aimed at dissuading Catholics from co-operating with the security forces.

The commission says the dissidents hope to sabotage the transfer of Northern Ireland's justice system to the Northern Assembly this year.

The violence "is an attack on the peaceful political approach adopted by Sinn Fein and is designed to affect policing and to raise public fears about security," it said.

The commission, which includes former CIA director Richard Kerr, says both the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, have upped their recruitment, training and weapons smuggling since March.

"The seriousness, range and tempo of their activities all changed for the worse in these six months," they wrote.

And they said the worst threat came from veterans of the Provisional IRA who are training these new recruits in spite of the Provisionals' 2005 decision to disarm.

"The majority of new recruits are inexperienced young males," the commission said. "There are however now indications that former republican terrorists have, as individuals, provided services in some instances to dissident republican groups, which even if occasional can significantly add to the threat."