The Irish Republican Army has sidestepped responsibility for bombing a hard-line Protestant town, an attack that has stoked sectarian passions as Catholic and Protestant negotiators are supposed to be compromising over Northern Ireland's future.

The outlawed IRA issued a statement late Monday to RTE, the Irish national broadcast company, that avoided commenting on Monday's blast in downtown Portadown, 30 miles southwest of Belfast.The bomb, hidden inside a stolen silver BMW, leveled two buildings, set another on fire and smashed windows and roofs across a wide area. But phoned warnings allowed police to clear the area before the bomb went off, preventing any serious injuries.

In its statement Monday, made by a man using a recognized code word, the IRA said the cease-fire it called in July 1997 "remains intact."

The statement mimicked the IRA's previous statement two weeks ago, which failed to confirm or deny involvement in two Belfast killings this month and insisted its truce was "intact." Such statements can be interpreted as vague denials, or a suggestion that occasional violent breaches don't constitute a formal abandonment of the IRA truce.

As punishment for the two killings, the British and Irish governments last week suspended the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party from peace talks for two weeks. The talks continued Tuesday at Stormont, the center of British administration in Northern Ireland, with seven parties at the table.

While the British government and police said they were uncertain who committed the bombing in Portadown, leaders of the north's pro-British Protestant majority blamed the IRA for the attack.

Residents reported many close scrapes during the frantic evacuation that followed the warning of an impending explosion.

The attack followed a similarly destructive car bomb strike Friday on another predominantly Protestant town, Moira, in which seven police and four civilians were injured. No group has claimed responsibility for either attack.