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Police officers stand at the site of a bomb explosion in Omagh, also the locale of the IRA's most deadly attack. Back in 1998, a bomb exploded in a busy shopping area in the town, killing 29 people. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

A Catholic policeman who had just joined Northern Ireland's police force was killed Saturday when a bomb exploded as he was getting into his car.

Const. Ronan Kerr, 25, was killed outside his home in Omagh at 4 p.m. local time. Neighbours rushed to put out the fire but to no avail.

Chief Const. Matt Baggott hailed Kerr as a "modern day hero."

Police have pointed the finger at the Irish Republican Army in the first deadly attack on security forces in the country in more than two years.

The explosion could have had a wider impact: 2,000 people taking part in the Omagh half marathon had gone through the neighbourhood just hours before the blast.

Irish Catholic police targeted

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Irish PM Enda Kenny has called the attack 'heinous and pointless.' (François Lenoir/Reuters)

The IRA has stated it would target Irish Catholics who join the police force.

A new policy for uniting the religiously divided country helped re-make Northern Ireland's police force. Catholic recruits, who only made up eight per cent of the force in 2001, now account for 30 per cent.

Omagh is  a town forever linked with the IRA's most deadly attack — a 1998 bombing that killed 29 people in a busy shopping area.

"Those who carried it out want to drag us back to the misery and pain of the past," Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Saturday, calling it a "heinous and pointless act of terror."

"They are acting in defiance of the Irish people," Kenny said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Kenny's sentiments: "Those who carried out this wicked and cowardly crime will never succeed in dragging Northern Ireland back to a dark and bloody past."

'Peace-building will continue'

Leaders from the Irish Catholic and British Protestant communities united in condemning the act and vowed to bring the attackers to justice.

"While those behind this act seek to promote division and conflict, let us state clearly: They will fail," said Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who is the senior Catholic in the current government. "The process of peace-building will continue."

Residents of Omagh say the attack has brought back memories of the devastation wrought in 1998.

"I feel a lot of anger that another young life has been stolen, that this has happened again in our town," said Michael Gallagher, whose only son, 21-year-old Aiden, died in the 1998 attack, which killed mostly women and children.

No one has ever been successfully prosecuted for that crime.

Most IRA members renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, opening the way for Protestants and Catholics to form a united government in 2007.

Since then, IRA dissidents have planted dozens of booby-trap bombs under the private cars of police officers. While most have failed to detonate, two policemen have lost their legs in such attacks.

In 2009, two off-duty British soldiers and a policeman were shot dead. Last year, car bombs were detonated outside businesses, security installations and a courthouse, but no one was injured.