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Colombians Fear a New Front

South America: Pair of bombs kills 12 people, amid concern urban areas are now targets.

April 08, 2002|RUTH MORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia — Two bombs ripped through a strip of nightclubs and restaurants in a provincial Colombian capital early Sunday, killing at least 12 people and fueling fears of stepped-up terrorist attacks in urban centers.

Police said the first bomb exploded at 1:08 a.m. in a parking lot in the most popular entertainment district of Villavicencio, 45 miles southeast of Bogota, the national capital. Minutes later and just yards away, a car packed with 150 pounds of dynamite blew up, dismembering many of the victims. Authorities said more than 70 people were being treated in nearby hospitals and that several were in critical condition.

None of Colombia's armed groups claimed responsibility for the attack, but military and police chiefs quickly singled out the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the likely culprit. The 17,000-strong guerrilla group has carried out a sabotage campaign since February in retaliation for President Andres Pastrana's decision to end peace talks and send government troops into a southern rebel haven.

"The way this attack was carried out points toward them," said Chief Prosecutor Luis Camilo Osorio, referring to the FARC, which has waged a 38-year insurgency. "It's a possibility we're not dismissing."

Video images from the scene showed twisted car frames in a street carpeted by glass shards and rubble. Several building facades collapsed, and crumpled barroom furniture littered the sidewalks.

Police said the first blast was meant to draw anguished spectators closer to the scene so that the second bomb would claim more victims.

President Vows to Pursue Bombers

Pastrana traveled with top military advisors to Villavicencio on Sunday to devise security measures aimed at thwarting further terror attacks. Speaking to reporters later, the president offered a $45,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the bombers.

"We're going to pursue these terrorists wherever they are. They're not going to find a hiding place anywhere in the world," Pastrana said, adding that nine teenagers were among the dead.

The attack also kindled fears that Colombia's bloody civil conflict was spilling into city streets. Until recently, the conflict mostly consisted of territorial battles fought between the rebels and their ultra-right paramilitary foes for control of drug crops and gun-running routes.

But in January, suspected FARC guerrillas detonated a bicycle bomb in front of a Bogota cafeteria, killing six civilians, including a young child. And since peace talks collapsed on Feb. 20, the FARC has knocked out dozens of bridges and electricity pylons, punching holes in the nation's power grid and isolating several mid-size cities.

A military spokesman said the FARC had recently detonated at least three car bombs in remote rural areas but that Sunday's attack was far deadlier. He said FARC fighters have long been stationed around Villavicencio and often slip into town in civilian clothing "to rest."

Urban Attacks Outrage Colombian Public

Military analysts link the wave of urban violence to increased mobility and improved air surveillance on the part of the Colombian armed forces. Feeling vulnerable from the air, analysts say, the rebels are concentrating on hit-and-run attacks that bring their struggle right to city-dwellers' doorsteps.

In turn, the urban attacks have inspired widespread indignation, which appears to have reshaped Colombia's political landscape. With presidential elections little more than a month away, hard-line presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez leads opinion polls by a huge margin. Uribe promises to crack down on the rebels by expanding the armed forces and by mounting a million-man civilian security force.

The shift in rebel tactics also comes as Washington contemplates expanding its role in this war-torn Andean nation. Among other requests, Pastrana has asked the White House to lift current restrictions so that U.S.-donated anti-narcotics helicopters can participate in counterinsurgency missions.

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