LIMA, Peru – Three days before President Bush's arrival in Peru, a powerful car bomb blew up outside the U.S. Embassy in Lima, killing at least nine people and wounding dozens more. The State Department said no Americans were killed, and an anonymous official there later said none had been injured.
U.S. officials said Thursday that Shining Path rebels were suspected.
Bush said Thursday that he would still visit Lima and would not be dissuaded by "two-bit terrorists." Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was cutting short a visit to a U.N. summit in Mexico to rush home after the blast. Bush arrives Saturday for meetings with Toledo and the leaders of the neighboring Andean states of Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The bomb tore through a neighborhood of upscale shops and restaurants at about 10:45 p.m., both EST and local time. The victims, including at least two police officers and a young man wearing roller skates, lay in the street.
Windows in a nearby bank and hotel were shattered. A small police truck was mangled, its hood peeled back and shredded. Another ten cars were damaged.
The fortress-like embassy, set far back from the street, was unscathed.
Peruvian Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi said he was "certain that there was no way President Bush will change his plans to visit Peru because of this terrorist attack."
U.S. Embassy officials condemned "the barbaric terrorist bombing." Toledo, at a U.N. development meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, also condemned the attack.
"I will not permit democracy to be undermined by terrorist attacks," Toledo told Peru's leading radio station, Radioprogramas. "We will not give one centimeter. I am going to apply a hard-line policy within the framework of the law."
Security in Lima has been boosted in anticipation of Bush's arrival.
"I'm sure the president there did everything he can to make Lima safe for our trip," Bush said in the Oval Office. "You know, two-bit terrorists aren't going to prevent me from doing what we need to do, and that is to promote our friendship in the hemisphere."
"We might have an idea" who set off the bomb, Bush said. "They've been around before." Bush did not identify the suspected group — but he nodded when a reporter asked if Shining Path was on the upsurge.
In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that the bomb had some of the hallmarks of previous Shining Path attacks. A State Department official said Shining Path is the "likely suspect" in the Lima attack.
Bush spoke before heading to Monterrey, Mexico, where he will attend a U.N. conference before he begins his first Latin American visit since becoming president. Toledo decided to leave the Monterrey conference on Thursday to return home a day early.
Prosecutor Maria del Pilar Peralta said at least nine people were confirmed dead in the blast. Deputy fire commander Juan Piperis said at least 30 people had been injured and taken to a nearby hospital. He estimated about 30 kilograms — 66 pounds — of explosives had been used in the bomb.
There was no claim of responsibility. But some U.S. officials pointed to Shining Path, a rebel movement that killed thousands of people in a campaign of bombings, assassinations and massacres in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Peruvians feared the bombing meant a resurgence of violence by Shining Path, which was largely crushed by the late 1990s.
The State Department official said Shining Path was also suspected in a separate blast Wednesday in which a small bomb exploded outside an office of Peru's Spanish-owned telephone company, causing damage but no injuries.
The Maoist-inspired Shining Path, which once numbered as many as 10,000 fighters, largely fell apart after the 1992 capture of its founder and leader, Abimael Guzman, and a fierce crackdown by the government. Its last car bombing in Lima was in 1997.
Guzman is now serving a life sentence in prison. In the late 1990s, the government launched a tough campaign — including secret military courts that brought international criticism — and jailed hundreds of the movement's members.
But the government says the movement still has about 500 combatants hiding out in the jungles of eastern Peru, and officials announced in December they had broken up efforts to form a Shining Path cell in the capital to plot bombing attacks, including against the U.S. Embassy.
Some 30,000 people died in the violence of the 1980s and 1990s during the insurgencies of the Shining Path and the smaller and less deadly Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The Tupac Amaru movement is best known for a four-month siege of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in 1996-97.
"I pray it doesn't start again," said Regina Fetzer, 25, as she inspected the damage to her Volkswagen Jetta early Thursday morning.
Jose Victor Ortiz, 22, a business school student who lives nearby, rushed to the scene when he heard the explosion.
"I saw a mutilated body to my right and another on a stairway on the other side," he said. "When I crouched down, I saw a policeman thrown down on the ground. He had glass encrusted in his cheek and his forehead and he was asking me to help him and that he couldn't feel his legs."
U.S. Embassy officials offered condolences in a statement early Thursday.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families," the statement said. "The United States government is providing all possible assistance to Peruvian authorities so those responsible for this horrific crime are brought to justice."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.