Published August 08, 2002
BOGOTA, Colombia – Huge explosions rocked the area around Colombia's parliament and presidential palace Wednesday as hard-liner Alvaro Uribe was sworn in as president of this troubled country. At least 14 people were killed and 69 wounded, police said.
No one took immediate responsibility for the explosions, which came on a day of massive security. Uribe has vowed to wipe out rebels who have been fighting in the South American nation for 38 years and threats had included one that rebels were planning to crash a plane into parliament.
Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus said intercepted radio messages among members of the country's largest rebel group -- the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC -- showed the FARC was behind the attack.
Mockus said 11 of the 14 who died were killed in an explosion in the poor Cartucho neighborhood, a few blocks from parliament. Three others died in a separate attack nearby, adjacent to the presidential palace. Officials retracted an earlier report that 16 people were killed.
Three blasts went off in Cartucho as Uribe entered the nearby parliament building to take the oath of office from Senate leader Luis Alfredo Ramos.
Two mortar rounds also went off adjacent to the palace, wounding a policeman, who staggered bloodied from the scene. The blast chipped the stone wall off the palace and blew out windows.
Uribe did not mention the explosions in his inaugural address.
"The world must understand that this conflict needs unconventional, transparent and imaginative solutions," the new president said.
Ramos said Uribe was "serene" when informed of the attacks.
Government warplanes were seen streaking above the capital after the blasts.
"The FARC did this, but Uribe is going to make them sorry. They will pay," said Maria Luz Valenzuela, whose home was rattled by the blasts.
Army troops quickly sealed off the Cartucho neighborhood after the explosions. The government has been tearing down shanties in Cartucho in recent months as part of an urban renewal program, and resentment against authorities has been running high. Some residents threw rocks at the soldiers, while others wept.
"There's no escaping poverty or violence," said a man who identified himself only as Jose. A woman standing next to him sobbed, saying her husband had died in the blasts.
Concerned about a rebel assassination attempt, Uribe had forgone the traditional outdoor ceremony in Bogota's colonial central plaza and moved the swearing in to the parliament building. Troops had patrolled the streets and combat helicopters thundered overhead during the inauguration.
But the extraordinary security was unable to prevent the violence. Authorities said the mortars that hit near the palace and Cartucho were launched from a house about 1 miles away.
Hours earlier, suspected rebels also fired mortars in northern Bogota at a military installation, wounding three people. Several small bombs were also set off, wounding three other people and blowing out windows and chunks of sidewalk.
In the countryside, suspected rebels fired homemade mortars at a military base, but instead hit 20 houses and a school, which were heavily damaged, the army said. There was no immediate word of casualties in the attack near Yopal, 130 miles northeast of Bogota.
Late Wednesday, one person died trying to set off a car bomb in Cali, Colombia's third largest city.
The White House had no immediate comment on the explosions, but spokesman Sean McCormack said members of the U.S. delegation at the inauguration were not harmed.
The presidents of Panama, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Honduras also attended and were not hurt, officials said.
Hopes were high that Uribe can end the war that has sapped the potential of Colombia, a gateway between Central and South America that is a three-hour flight from Miami.
At 50, Uribe has worked in government for half his life. A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, he served two terms in the Senate, was mayor of his native Medellin, director of Colombia's civil aviation authority and governor of violence-ravaged Antioquia state.
Uribe inherits the decades-old war with rebels, violence that kills some 3,500 people every year. The war pits the leftist FARC against an outlawed right-wing paramilitary group and the government.
Uribe's father was shot to death during an apparent rebel kidnapping attempt in 1983. The new president has been the target of more than a half dozen assassination attempts, including a deadly attack on his motorcade during the election campaign.
But he insists that his stance against the rebels is not motivated by revenge, and pledges to be equally tough against right-wing militias and drug traffickers. He's also promised to take on government corruption and reform the tax code.
He faces a country in economic turmoil. About 64 percent of Colombians live below the poverty line and more than 17 percent of city dwellers can't find jobs.
Uribe, a workaholic and teetotaler, warned in a radio interview Wednesday that he cannot perform miracles.
"To the Colombians I say: Expect action every day, but not miraculous results."
Uribe had planned immediately after being sworn in to propose a referendum to almost halve the number of lawmakers and merge the two houses of parliament .
The frontal attack on the entrenched political class could provoke a pitched battle with the same congress he needs to support his other reforms.
Uribe says the reforms will cut back on government waste and allow more money to be diverted to fighting the war. He's also hoping to secure more funding from the United States, which in the past two years gave Colombia $1.7 billion, mostly in military aid.
His term in Medellin coincided with the reign of drug king Pablo Escobar, and Uribe has been dogged by allegations he was tied to drug traffickers. He denies it, saying his family's ties to the Ochoa family, many of whom were important lieutenants in Escobar's Medellin Cartel, are based on a love of expensive horses, not drug running.
Uribe enjoys broad support from the White House, which sent a delegation that included Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and U.S. drug czar John Walters.
"He understands that security means eliminating the extremes on the left and the right and eliminating the drugs that fund those organizations," Walters said.
Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, tried for three years to negotiate a peace with the FARC. The talks broke down in February without achieving substantial results.