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Bombs in Colombia capital leave at least 12 people dead

Monday, April 8, 2002

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia -- Two bombs exploded in a provincial capital of Colombia Sunday, killing 12 people, wounding dozens and stoking fears that Colombia's civil war is becoming one of indiscriminate terrorist attacks.

No one claimed responsibility for the blasts in Villavicencio shortly after 1 a.m., but police suspected the country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was behind it.

A small explosive device had gone off minutes earlier, attracting people who were in bars and restaurants on a warm weekend night. Then a bomb -- located underneath a car parked on the street -- blew up, shredding bodies and causing damage in a four-block-wide area.

Four people were killed in the first explosion and eight died in the second blast.

Two mangled bodies remained uncovered on the street hours after the bombing as investigators picked through the debris. The blast heavily damaged several buildings, including the offices of Radio Super, bars and discos. Several cars were wrecked.

Targeting civilians

The rebels have increasingly turned toward civilian targets since peace talks with the FARC collapsed on Feb. 20, attacking power plants, reservoirs and bridges. On Friday, another car bomb exploded in the town of Fuente de Oro, injuring 13 people and damaging 20 businesses.

In Villavicencio on Sunday, Mary Batio sat on a curbside, mourning her 22-year-old daughter, Diana Cristina Beltran, who was killed in the attack while out with friends.

"I want my baby back," Batio wailed. "She didn't have anything to do with anything. Why did she have to lose her young life?"

Leonor Castro, 71, said her nephew saved her life by carrying her out of her bedroom when the smaller device exploded outside her home. Minutes later the larger bomb went off, destroying her bedroom and blowing the door onto her bed.

The Colombian and Uruguayan tennis teams were in the city, 45 miles southeast of Bogota, for a Davis cup match, but no players were injured. Colombian team captain Uriel Oquendo said his team was in a hotel in another part of the city.

"Thank God, we were relaxing far from the place of the attack," Oquendo said in a telephone interview. The final matches began as scheduled later Sunday.

Residents said they were afraid the two car bombings, both in Meta province, might herald a new offensive targeting civilians. The 38-year-old civil war already claims some 3,500 lives every year.

"This makes us afraid that something even worse will come," said Lenigh Hillom, her voice trembling as she surveyed the damage to her marketing business a block away from the bomb.

The commander of Colombia's national police, Gen. Ernesto Gilibert, said the FARC appeared to be behind the bombing -- but added that he doubted it was the opening of an offensive of terrorist bombings.

President Andres Pastrana, who visited the scene, called the bombers "demented terrorists."

Authorities asked residents of Villavicencio, the capital of Meta state, to donate blood for the wounded. They posted a $7,000 reward for identifying the attackers.

Meta state police commander Col. Arnulso Oliveros said the FARC operates in the Villavicencio and has attacked civilians in the past.

The city is located in the Andean foothills, between Bogota and a safe haven that Pastrana had granted to the rebels at the start of peace talks in 1999.

Pastrana revoked the sanctuary and canceled the talks after the FARC hijacked a Colombian airliner and kidnapped a senator who was on board. Separate peace talks with a smaller rebel group are continuing.

In another attack, gunmen killed a priest, Juan Ramon Nunez, in a Roman Catholic church during services Saturday evening in the southern village of La Argentina. A parishioner was also hit by bullets and later died of his wounds.

There was no immediate indication of who might have been responsible for the killings, which occurred in a region where the FARC operates.

Colombia's 38-year-old civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel army against a rival paramilitary group and U.S.-backed government forces.

2nd bomb underneath car on street, not in parking lot.


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