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Leftist guerrilla group claims it bombed Mexican pipelines

The militants say they attacked Pemex to force the return of two members. States face natural gas shortages.

September 12, 2007|Maria Antonieta Uribe and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

MALTRATA, MEXICO — A leftist guerrilla group claimed credit Tuesday for the bombing attacks a day earlier of six Pemex pipelines in central Mexico, as officials conceded it was impossible for police and army troops to protect the company's vast fuel-distribution network.

The Popular Revolutionary Army, known by the initials EPR in Spanish, said 12 of its "military units" had undertaken the attacks in Veracruz and Tlaxcala states to force the government to hand over two EPR militants who disappeared this year. The EPR says the men were arrested in Oaxaca, but officials there deny they detained them.

On Tuesday, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, officials said the attacks had caused a 25% drop in the supply of natural gas available to consumers across Mexico. At least 10 states reported natural gas shortages. Several factories remained closed for lack of fuel, including the Volkswagen plant in Puebla.

Fires set off at the bombed pipelines were largely contained Tuesday. But Pemex officials said it may take days to repair the severed lines.

Coming two months after similar attacks in the states of Guanajuato and Queretaro, the bombings were a blow to the government of Felipe Calderon, who has made security a centerpiece of his presidency.

In Maltrata, a town of about 15,000 in Veracruz state, most residents returned home a day after explosions at a concrete Pemex structure less than a mile outside the town limits. The small building contained a valve station linked to three lines that carried gasoline and natural gas. The town sits in a small valley and many residents fled to the surrounding hillsides in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.

"At about 2 a.m., the ground shook, and we heard a thunder clap," said resident Genaro Marcelino. "We grabbed what we could, ran out of the house and into the hills. It was raining cats and dogs. We saw the sky light up."

Authorities said no one was injured in the blasts. Maltrata residents said only one person lived near the exploded building: a squatter who mysteriously moved out of his shack a day before it was singed by the explosion.

"This time we all lived to tell the tale, but next time, who knows," said Delia Vera, a fruit vendor. Like others here, she expressed frustration with both the guerrillas and the government. "Let Calderon work out his things, and not get us mixed up in his problems."

A few residents were too afraid to return to their homes and spent another night in emergency shelters. "It was frightening," said 13-year-old Gerardo Grande Dominguez. "All I saw was the sky turn orange."

Officials said the method employed in the attack was similar to July bombings for which EPR claimed responsibility. Monday's devices used shaped plastic explosives, known as "sausage" bombs, and were detonated remotely by cellphones.

On Monday, one bomb was discovered intact, with a message attached. "Alive you took them, alive we want them back," the note read, in an apparent reference to the missing militants.

Local news reported that army troops had been briefly posted to the Maltrata pipelines after the July attacks. An army bomb squad surveyed several miles of the line near Maltrata after an anonymous threat on July 18 but declared the incident a "false alarm."

Pemex general director Jesus Reyes Heroles said Tuesday that the state-owned distribution network, which includes 30,000 miles of pipelines, was simply too large to guard completely.

"To think that we can protect with private guards or armed forces, is impossible," he told reporters.

Others say the attacks point to failures in Mexico's intelligence agencies, which have been humbled by a relatively small group of rebels, many of whom are well known by authorities.

The EPR was founded in the Pacific state of Guerrero in the mid-1990s but has split into half a dozen groups. The core of the EPR group linked to the pipeline attacks is made up of five extended families based in the southern state of Oaxaca, according to a military intelligence report obtained by the newspaper El Universal in July.

The report identifies one leader as Paulino Cruz Sanchez, a man who also goes by the name Tiburcio Cruz Sanchez and by the nicknames "the Professor" and "Pancho Riatas."

Cruz Sanchez is "an explosives expert with more than four decades in the clandestine armed struggle," the report says. His brother Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez is one of the two men whose release is demanded in EPR communiques.

Tuesday's communique, sent to several Mexican newspapers, said Calderon's government was waging a "dirty war" against dissent.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

Uribe reported from Maltrata and Tobar from Mexico City.

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