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Dozens wounded in Bogota bomb attack as Free Trade Agreement takes effect

The Americas Post - Innocent bus riders were caught in the blast that rocked Bogota

A bomb aimed at a hardline former interior minister killed two of his bodyguards and injured at least 31 people in Bogotá’s uptown commercial district Tuesday, in the kind of attack not been seen in the capital for years.

Former official Fernando Londoño suffered minor shrapnel wounds and was out of danger, authorities said. Video footage showed a stunned Londoño, his face bruised, being led from the wreckage in a dark suit and red tie.

Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro said a pedestrian attached an explosive to a door of Londoño’s armored SUV and set it off remotely. He said authorities had video of the attack.

The attacker “walked away disguised” and a wig of long black hair and a hat were found in the area, Petro told reporters.

It was the first fatal bombing in the capital in nearly a decade of an apparently political nature. While officials didn’t ascribe blame, some analysts suspected the country’s main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  The attack marked the very first day that the new Free Trade Pact between Colombia and the United States went into effect.

“We don’t know what’s behind it,” said President Juan Manuel Santos. “But rest assured that the government isn’t going to be knocked off track by terrorist acts.”

A morning radio host who is an archconservative and a stringent critic of the FARC, the 68-year-old Londoño was interior and justice minister in 2002-2003 under former President Alvaro Uribe.

He hosts a daily radio show called “The Hour of Truth” and firmly opposes peace talks with the FARC, calling the rebels “terrorists” and “murderers.” He has also been critical of Santos for allegedly being soft on the rebels, who have stepped up attacks in recent months.

Under Uribe, Colombia’s U.S.-backed military dealt major setbacks to the FARC, diminishing its numbers by roughly half to about 9,000 currently. Colombia’s capital became progressively safer, the conflict increasingly limited to less populated hinterlands.

The last major bombing in Bogotá was in 2003, when the FARC bombed the exclusive El Nogal social club, killing 36 people. The cocaine trade-funded FARC was also blamed for a pre-dawn bombing outside an office building housing Caracol radio in August 2010, but that blast only injured nine people.

Londoño’s driver and a police bodyguard were killed in the attack shortly before midday on Calle 74 a half block from Caracas Avenue. The district is packed with office buildings, stores, restaurants and banks.

Catalina Ballesteros, a 24-year-old student, was in a bus that was badly damaged by the blast. She said she was surprised at the concentrated force.

“After the explosion it was chaos,” said Ballesteros, who suffered only cuts. She said she saw one man on the street who had fainted.

Londono was being treated at the Clinica del Country hospital for minor shrapnel wounds in his face and was out of danger, said the hospital’s director, Jorge Ospina.

An additional 24 people were treated for injuries at the clinic, eight of whom were released, Ospina said. Six others were treated at a different hospital, El Marly, said police Gen. Rodolfo Palomino.

Ospina said the only person seriously injured in the blast was a 38-year-old passer-by who needed surgery and was in danger of losing his right arm.

Earlier Tuesday, police said they had deactivated a car bomb in the center of the city and said they presumed it was from the FARC. Police said they arrested the person who was driving the car.

It was not known if the incident was related to the apparent attack on Londoño. Santos convened Petro, Colombia’s chief prosecutor and its military and police brass for an afternoon security session.

Santos considers himself a progressive and, in addition to a military hard line against the FARC, has sought to return stolen land to peasants and pay reparations to victims of Colombia’s long-running civil conflict.

The FARC was blamed by authorities for two bombings in February in provincial Colombia that killed at least 16 people, and military analyst Alfredo Rangel said he suspected it Tuesday’s bombing because of Londoño’s hard line against the rebels.

Leftist congressman and human rights activist Ivan Cepeda said he feared the attack could trigger others attack, including those targeting the left.

“I see a clear intent to destabilize,” Cepeda said, blaming “sectors who don’t want peace.”

Political scientist Vicente Torrijos of the Universidad del Rosario, supported the theory that the FARC was to blame as it “seeks to show itself to the world as an organization sufficiently strong militarily and not only a weak organization that is only looking to negotiate with the government.”

The FARC has been seeking peace talks and last month released what it said were its last “political prisoners,” 10 police and soldiers held for as many as 14 years.