At the scene of Northern Ireland's worst terrorist attack, President Clinton Thursday consoled relatives of victims of the car bombing last month that killed 28 people and shattered hundreds of lives in this religiously mixed farming community.

"To all of you, we thank you for standing up in the face of such a soul-searing loss and restating your determination to walk the road of peace," Clinton said in a closed session in a community hall.With first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, the president spoke to about 500 family members of the victims. Later he talked privately with a 14-year-old girl who was blinded in the bombing and her mother, a nurse, who was on duty at an Omagh hospital that day.

"There's no word to explain a mindless act of terror that grabs the life of an innocent, but I think the only way to truly redeem such a terrible loss is to make the memories of the innocents monuments to peace," he said. "We cannot brook a descent into terror. Northern Ireland is walking away from it. Life will never be the same here, but it will go on."

Earlier Thursday, the president told an assemblage of lawmakers and citizens in Belfast that Catholics and Protestants must pull together with "courage and reconciliation" to build a new Northern Ireland. "America will continue to walk the road of renewal with you," he declared.

Afterward Clinton met with members of the 108-member assembly that will make key decisions implementing the peace accord reached last April which ended the Irish violence and set forth a road map for disarmament and governing the British-ruled Northern Ireland.

In his private meeting with families in Omagh, Clinton told the relatives that the terrorist who set off the bomb in this farming village - contrary to their own purpose - "galvanized, strengthened and humanized the impulse to peace."

"What happened here on August the 15th was so incredibly unreasonable, so shocking to the conscience of every decent person in this land, that it has perversely had exactly the reverse impact that the people who perpetrated this act intended," he said.

Clinton's remarks were in private, but a transcript was provided to reporters afterward.

The Omagh car bombing killed 28 people and shattered hundreds of lives as it ripped through this religiously mixed farm community. The attack was perpetrated by a renegade Irish Republican Army splinter group which rejects the Irish peace accords and refuses to adhere to the IRA's July 1997 truce. The group, calling itself the Real IRA, later "suspended" its terror campaign in light of the Omagh carnage, which it called unintentional.

Still, optimism was Thursday's overarching theme. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, showed off the day's headline in the Independent, announcing that Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, had agreed to meet with Gerry Adams, whose Sinn Fein group is allied with the Irish Republican Army.

Berger called it a breakthrough. "This is the headline we wanted to see when we got here," he enthused to reporters.

Leading Catholic and Protestant assembly members spoke warmly of brotherhood. Mallon, the Catholic deputy first minister, paid tribute to Clinton's central role in the peace process and said "we firmly believe that a bright tomorrow dawns for all of us."