August 12, 2010 / 1:33 PM / 9 years ago

Car bomb explodes in Colombian capital

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A car bomb exploded on Thursday outside a radio station in Colombia’s capital, wounding nine people and blowing out windows in the first major attack since President Juan Manuel Santos took office last weekend.

Police officers search for clues at the site of a car bomb explosion in in Bogota August 12, 2010. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

A damaged bus with its front window blown out sat abandoned on a main avenue near Caracol radio, panicked residents stood in the streets, and investigators picked over the wreckage of the exploded car soon after the rare bombing in Bogota.

“This is a terrorist attack,” Santos told reporters at the site of the blast without giving details on those responsible. “I believe this is a message, this is not gratuitous.”

Santos, a former defence minister, took office on Saturday promising to keep up former President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed war on FARC guerrillas. The bombing on Thursday underscored the security challenges he still faces.

Bombings and attacks on Colombian cities dropped sharply after Uribe took office in 2002. Violence from the country’s war ebbed as Uribe’s security campaign sent troops out to battle leftist rebels, militia gangs and cocaine kingpins.

A FARC bomb killed nine people in the coastal town of Buenaventura last March. A bombing at a Blockbuster store in Bogota killed two people in 2009 in an attack authorities said was linked to extortion by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The government was cautious in attributing the latest attack to the FARC or cocaine traffickers who have at times used car bombs as an intimidation tactic.

“It is hard to say at this point who is behind this. It could be the FARC or could be other criminal groups,” said Markus Schultze-Kraft, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank’s office in Bogota.

“The message is we are here and we have the capacity to target public institutions such as Caracol, and that should make Colombians aware they still have to deal with large security issues,” he said.

SECURITY CHALLENGES

Windows as high as 30 stories were blasted out in buildings along Bogota’s main 7th Avenue, leaving tattered curtains fluttering out of empty frames. Workers in red uniforms swept up glass littering the streets after the early morning attack.

Dario Arizmendi, the main anchorman of Caracol, one of the country’s major radio stations, has received threats from armed groups and has left Colombia in the past for his safety.

“I woke up and my floor and bed were covered in glass,” said Mauricio Marentes, 28, a geologist who lives on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the blast site.

Markets mainly dismissed the bombing, and the Colombian peso fell on factors such as speculation over moves by the central bank to curb appreciation. The peso has risen more than 11.5 percent this year.

The blast came just two days after Santos tackled one of his other major challenges by mending ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist leader who has in the past shown political affinity for FARC guerrillas.

“The Venezuelan people and government energetically reject the terrorist act carried against the brother nation of Colombia,” the Venezuelan government said in a statement.

Slideshow (4 Images)

After taking office, Uribe sent troops out to reclaim areas once under FARC rebel control, and Latin America’s oldest left-wing insurgency has been reduced to its weakest state in decades. Several top commanders have been killed or captured and the FARC ranks have been thinned by desertions.

But the rebel group is still a force in rural areas where it has often allied itself with traffickers and paramilitary gangs to benefit from the cocaine trade. Guerrillas now rely on ambushes and home-made land mines to harry army patrols.

Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Luis Jaime Acosta and Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by Peter Cooney

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