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Bombs in Northern Ireland target 'positivity and progress'

Two bombs planted by Irish Republican Army dissidents exploded in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on Thursday night in what appears to be a campaign targeting preparations for next year's "U.K. City of Culture" celebrations.

No injuries were reported as police quickly evacuated the area following telephoned warnings at about 8 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET).

One bomb left outside the city's main tourist office exploded as around 75 elderly residents of a nursing home were still being evacuated roughly 25 yards away.

Police evacuated the city's major shopping center as bombs placed in nearby streets detonated within 10 minutes of each other. At least one bomb appeared to have been concealed in an abandoned gym bag.

No-one has come forward to take responsibility for the attacks, but IRA splinter groups based in the overwhelmingly Catholic west side of Londonderry have repeatedly targeted local businesses and police stations with a range of homemade bombs. They reject the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm, and insist that Northern Ireland should be ejected from the United Kingdom by force.

Mark Durkan, the local member of the U.K. parliament, is among a number who believe the dissidents are choosing targets linked to the U.K. City of Culture title which Londonderry will hold in 2013. In October, a bomb detonated at the offices of the event's organizing committee.

The City of Culture status, bestowed by the U.K. government, is aimed at attracting tourism and funding for arts projects and urban regeneration. Winning the title was widely seen as a boost for Northern Ireland's second-biggest city, and a potential turning point after decades of association with some of the worst of the sectarian violence.

Pa Wire / PA via AP, file

Police officers examine the scene of a bomb attack outside the offices of the "U.K City of Culture" organizing committee in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on October 13, 2011.

"The City of Culture represents positivity and progress," Durkan told msnbc.com on Friday. "It is about people from all backgrounds working together to improve our future and building on the peace process. The people behind these attacks see it is a vindication of the peace deal and want to disrupt it."

Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott told the Irish Times the city should be enjoying the limelight "yet instead some madmen seem to think it is an opportunity for them to seize some publicity."

Eighteen months ago, the city celebrated the end of a decade-long public inquiry into the deaths of 13 civilians shot by British soldiers one Sunday afternoon in 1974. The events of that afternoon of violence, named Bloody Sunday, had been an open wound during the peace process, and the inquiry's conclusion - that the killings had been unjustified - was welcomed as an opportunity for the city to move on.

But the scars remain. So deeply divided is the city that there is even disagreement on what it should be called. In general, Irish nationalists use the name Derry and UK loyalists use Londonderry. Attempts to appease both communities by using 'Derry/Londonderry' have earned it the nickname 'Stroke City'.

Durkan said he believed the dissidents were angry at the prospect of Londonderry hosting the Irish traditional culture festival Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 2013. It would be the first time the event has taken place across the Irish border in Northern Ireland.

"They object to the name U.K. in the title 'U.K. City of Culture,'" he said. "The only reason U.K. is in the title is to avoid confusion with the European City of Culture. It's ridiculous."

Durkan said it was likely the attacks would continue. "Of course we expect more of this to happen," he told msnbc.com. "However, we absolutely should not give in to a tiny minority who want to remain in the past. As soon as we change our course, they have won.

People celebrate after it was announced that Londonderry would be "U.K. City of Culture" in 2013.

"They are not winning sympathy and people I have spoken to are disgusted by it. These attacks don't just cause damage, they cause traffic disruption and prevent people going about their lives."

Chief Superintendent Stephen Martin said much of central Londonderry would be sealed off Friday so that police could comb the bomb sites for forensic clues.

"Thankfully we are not dealing with mass casualties or worse this," he said.

"The people in Derry do not want this disruption. It is cowardly and callous. People simply want to move on with their lives, not take a step back. Regrettably the whole community will once again suffer because of the needless actions of a few."

Recent bombs have caused relatively little damage and few casualties, and chiefly appear to rally politicians from all sides in support of Northern Ireland's mixed Catholic-Protestant government, the chief accomplishment of nearly two decades of peacemaking.

"These are the desperate actions of yesterday's men. They seem to be more wedded to the struggle than to the cause they claim to be pursuing," David Ford, Northern Ireland's justice minister, told the Belfast Telegraph.

Thursday's attacks came on the eve of a court judgment in the trial of two suspected IRA dissidents charged with murdering two British soldiers in March 2009. The victims were off duty and unarmed when IRA dissidents shot them at close range as they collected pizzas outside the entrance of an army base. They were the first killings of British security forces in Northern Ireland since 1998, the year of the province's Good Friday peace accord.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.