JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A massive car bomb exploded Sunday near African National Congress offices in downtown Johannesburg, leaving at least nine people dead and about 100 injured two days before this tense nation goes to the polls in its first free elections.
The explosion, the worst terrorist attack of the campaign, echoed across the country's commercial hub about 9:50 on a bright and sunny morning. Within moments, charred and dismembered bodies lay on the debris-strewn pavement, and survivors' screams filled the air.
The powerful blast, which left an eight-foot-wide crater, flipped a burning car on its roof and mangled four others. More than a dozen stores and shops were gutted, and windows were shattered for several blocks. Smoke billowed from burning buildings, and water poured from burst mains.
Police said up to 200 pounds of explosives had been packed in or under a beige Audi that was parked on a corner. "Without any doubt, this is the biggest bomb that ever went off in Johannesburg," said Col. Steve Senekal, the police spokesman.
"I thought it was the end of the world," said a still-shaking Stephen Murugan, 48, manager of a bar in the 90-room Diplomat Hotel, across the intersection from the blast. Every window in the 10-story building was broken.
The toll of dead and injured rose throughout the day as firefighters, police officers and civil defense teams searched nearby offices and apartments. Because it was Sunday, the streets had been relatively quiet and most of the shops were shuttered. Police said no warning was given.
No one claimed responsibility, but speculation immediately focused on far-right-wing whites, the only significant political force that remains outside the democratic process. Heavily armed white-supremacist groups have repeatedly vowed to wreck the first elections in which the nation's black majority will vote.
Police said they were unable to confirm witnesses' reports that at least one white man was seen running from the Audi shortly before the explosion.
White hate groups have been blamed for more than 50 bomb blasts of power pylons and campaign offices in and around rural farming towns since December. No one has been killed, but frustrated right-wing leaders warned last week that they would intensify their attacks to win a self-ruled, all-white homeland.
Wim Booysie, an expert on the right-wing whites, said that only a few of the country's 200 or so extremist groups are capable of assembling a sophisticated bomb.
"This is the first semblance of IRA-type guys at work," he said, referring to Irish Republican Army bombings in England and Northern Ireland.
"This was clearly aimed at civilians," he added. "But they wanted to send a message. If they could do it on a slow Sunday morning, obviously they can do it tomorrow," when the downtown streets are packed with shoppers.
Jakkie Cilliers, head of the independent Institute for Defense Policy, said police are likely to clamp down on suspected right-wing terror groups. "We can expect more sabotage and bombings, but I think they will be too late to make a difference," he said.
Political and religious leaders sought to reassure the public that the elections will proceed as planned to end white minority rule.
Voting will begin Tuesday in hospitals, prisons, homes for the elderly and other places where special polls are required. The vast majority of the 22.7 million eligible voters, including up to 18 million first-time black voters, will cast ballots Wednesday and Thursday for a new National Assembly and nine regional legislatures.
ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who is expected to be the nation's first black president, appealed for calm Sunday in his last rally of the campaign. Ironically, Mandela once headed an ANC guerrilla army that used car bombs and other terrorist tactics in its battle against apartheid.
One of those killed in Sunday's blast was Susan Keane, an ANC official who was a candidate for the provincial assembly in the Johannesburg-Pretoria region.
The bomb exploded at the corner of Bree and Von Wielligh streets, about halfway between the national and regional offices of the ANC.
But police said the ANC wasn't necessarily the target because the blast was also near a police barracks, a military recruiting station and headquarters of the radical black Pan-Africanist Congress.
ANC officials said the bomb was intended to frighten voters, and the international community, about the future of democracy here.
Tokyo Sexwale, who is the ANC's candidate for provincial premier, warned the bombers that they are "fighting against too many people."
"You have launched a war against a whole nation," he said at a news conference in the ANC regional office, a block from the site of the blast. Windows were shattered on almost every floor. Several windows were also broken at Shell House, the ANC national headquarters.
In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the attack as a "cowardly effort at intimidation" but expressing confidence that it "cannot and will not deter the overwhelming majority of South Africans who will vote in the country's first non-racial election."
At the bomb site Sunday, bystanders and survivors, including one shirtless man wearing bloody pants and bandages around his head, mingled behind lengthy police barricades of razor wire.
A traffic light hung askew, and a reinforced concrete balcony had a hole punched through it. Smashed bananas, apples and grapes were strewn from street stalls, and a woman picked among them to salvage what she could.
Stores selling radios, furniture, cosmetics and other goods were in ruins. So was the Loving Escort Agency and a casino. A pair of shoes lay near a pool of blood.
"It's madness," said Raman Mancha, 57, owner of the heavily damaged Plintor Food Market.