In a devastating terrorist attack blamed on cocaine traffickers, a bus packed with dynamite exploded Wednesday morning across a busy street from Colombia's police intelligence headquarters, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds more.
The official Legal Medical Institute and judges in charge of investigating the blast said 45 deaths had been registered by Wednesday night. The judges said about 400 people were injured.
The bomb erupted at 7:30 a.m. in an industrial, commercial and administrative zone on Bogota's southwest side. The thunderous explosion was heard across Bogota.
Police said eight of those killed were inside the headquarters of the Administrative Department of Security, the intelligence agency known by the Spanish initials DAS.
Most of the dead, however, were in the street and in nearby buildings. Officials estimated the amount of dynamite in the bus at 1,000 to 1,300 pounds. The blast opened a crater 10 feet deep and demolished a complex of two-story commercial buildings beside the avenue where the bus was parked.
It ripped the front off the 11-story main building of the DAS, demolishing much of the building's interior. It damaged numerous other buildings and shattered windows in a 26-block area.
In the immediate aftermath, injured people seeking aid wandered through the area, which was strewn with rubble, destroyed cars and bodies.
Victor Ramos, a reporter with the Todelar radio network, phoned in a report 15 minutes after the blast.
"I was near the DAS when it seemed that the earth shook," Ramos said, still apparently stunned by the explosion. "Everything is destroyed. Everybody is running or crying."
Taxi driver Luis Antonio Rincon, told the same network: "I was driving along and suddenly I felt an explosion that made my car rise from the ground." He said he and a friend with him remained unconscious for a few seconds but only suffered scratches from broken glass.
"After a while I tried to get out, because the door was jammed," Rincon said. "And we helped some injured people get out of cars behind us. . . . There were a lot of people, a lot of smoke."
Rescue workers spent most of the morning removing the dead and injured, and they continued searching the ruins of buildings during the afternoon.
Meanwhile, worried relatives of those feared hurt or dead gathered behind police lines near the blast scene and at hospitals where the injured were taken.
Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, chief of the DAS, was working at his desk near the top of the building when the explosion shook his office.
"It was like a mini-atom bomb," he told reporters. "The ceiling fell down on top of me."
Maza was not injured, but he said he saw one body on his floor as he left his office and that he heard "the cries of women--secretaries who were injured."
The general said the bus bomb was positioned to aim shock waves at the upper floors of the building--and he was the target. "Without doubt, it was aimed at me," he said.
In late May, Maza narrowly escaped a bomb attack on his automobile. Known as an energetic and honest official, he has been outspoken in his criticism of Colombian drug traffickers, who are said to account for 75% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States.
For more than a year, the general has directed a series of intelligence operations that have resulted in an unprecedented number of raids on cocaine laboratories and arrests of suspected traffickers. He also has worked to dismantle paramilitary death squads that he says are financed by multimillionaire drug lords Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Pablo Escobar.
Rodriguez Gacha and Escobar are the fugitive leaders of the so-called Medellin cartel, a loose alliance of traffickers based in the city of Medellin, and are believed to be the most violent of all Colombian drug lords.
The official offensive against the traffickers escalated in August when the government issued decrees allowing for the confiscation of properties belonging to accused traffickers and for their extradition to the United States.
In response, a group of drug lords calling themselves "the Extraditables" issued a communique declaring "total and absolute war" on the government and others who oppose them. Since then, more than 200 terrorist bombings have been blamed on the traffickers.
Some officials contend that the traffickers planted a bomb that exploded in a domestic airliner Nov. 27, killing 111 persons. A telephone caller told a radio station that day that "the Extraditables" sabotaged the plane because its passengers included five informants, and the Civil Aeronautics Department confirmed Tuesday that the crash was caused by a bomb in the passenger cabin.
In a communique issued Wednesday, "the Extraditables" said they will continue their war until the Colombian Senate passes a bill allowing voters to decide on the question of extradition in a January plebiscite. On Tuesday night, the House of Representatives approved the bill, which was attached to a broad constitutional reform proposal that would also be submitted to plebiscite.
The traffickers' communique, distributed to news media in Medellin, claimed responsibility for recent assassinations of judges in Medellin and of a police colonel there in August. "The Extraditables" did not say they ordered Wednesday's bus-bomb attack, but they said the assassinated judges "lent themselves, in company with Maza Marquez, to accuse us of crimes we never committed."
Carlos Lemos, minister of government, said it is "a terrible mistake" to believe that concessions such as a plebiscite on extradition will pacify the traffickers. Lemos is filling in as the government's chief executive while President Virgilio Barco is on an official visit to Japan.
"You have to know the narcotraficantes, " Lemos said. "Nothing soothes them, nothing pacifies them."
The Colombian House offered traffickers "the possibility of not being extradited, and this is the reply," he said. "Blow up a building and a whole block, kill a sadly large number of persons, leave numerous injured, and before that, kill a judge of the republic."
Gen. Oscar Botero, minister of defense, said he also believes drug traffickers planned the bomb attack.
"These occurrences are showing once again the belligerence and the atrocious way that the narcotraficantes are reacting," Botero told reporters.
Over the past decade, Colombian drug traffickers have been charged with killing three government ministers, a Supreme Court justice, dozens of other judges, and hundreds of police officers, including several high officials.
In Washington, counterterrorism officials expressed concern that the escalated bombing campaign could spread to U.S. targets.
So far, they have downplayed the likelihood of such an assault, saying traffickers probably want to avoid steps that would prompt more forceful U.S. retaliation.
However, one State Department official, noting the Avianca bombing, remarked, "We are not dealing with people who are always rational."
Times staff writer Doug Jehl, in Washington, contributed to this story.
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