Published May 15, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia – A bomb targeting a hardline former interior minister killed two of his bodyguards and injured at least 39 people in Bogota's uptown commercial district Tuesday in the type of brazen attack not seen in Colombia's capital in years.
The former minister and morning radio host, Fernando Londono, suffered minor wounds and was out of danger after being operated on to remove glass shards from his chest, authorities said. Video footage showed a stunned Londono, his face bruised, being led from the wreckage in a dark suit and red tie.
Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro said a pedestrian attached an explosive to a door of Londono'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 and it traumatized a capital that two decades before had been ravaged by car bombs set by drug traffickers fighting extradition to the United States.
Bogota's police chief, Gen. Luis Eduardo Martinez, blamed the country's main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, though without offering any evidence.
But President Juan Manuel Santos said immediately afterward that it was too early to assign blame, and he announced a $277,000 reward for information leading to those responsible.
"We don't know who is behind this attack," he said after meeting with police and military brass, Bogota's mayor and the chief prosecutor. He said, however, that the FARC was behind a car bomb that was detected and deactivated elsewhere in the capital earlier Tuesday.
Santos, who as defense minister in 2006-2009 dealt major setbacks to the rebels, vowed in response to the attack to "eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth."
Santos said Londono, 68, had in the past received death threats and had a sophisticated protection scheme involving about 19 bodyguards.
An archconservative and a stringent critic of the FARC, Londono 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 succeeded in diminishing the FARC's numbers by roughly half to about 9,000 currently, with increasingly effective bombings that prompted record desertions. Colombia's capital became progressively safer, the conflict increasingly limited to less populated hinterlands.
The last major bombing in Bogota was in 2003, when the FARC devastated the exclusive El Nogal social club, killing 36 people. The cocaine trade-funded FARC was also blamed for a pre-dawn bombing outside a building housing Caracol radio in August 2010 that injured nine people.
Londono's driver and a police bodyguard were killed in the attack shortly before midday on Calle 74 a half block from Caracas Avenue. It was not immediately clear where in the SUV the bodyguard was sitting. The affected district is packed with offices, stores, restaurants and banks and video of the scene after the blast showed people screaming as police and firefighters assisted the wounded, some with bloodied faces.
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.
Santos said 39 people were injured.
Londono was operated on at the Clinica del Country hospital to close skin wounds and remove glass shards from his chest, said the hospital's director, Jorge Ospina.
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, a Renault 9 whose trunk contained the explosive indugel, in the center of the city. Santos said its target was apparently a police station in a neighborhood named for his great uncle, former President Eduardo Santos.
The driver, who was arrested, "made a series of confessions," he said, indicating the FARC was to blame.
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 in Tuesday's bombing because of Londono's hard line against the rebels.
Leftist congressman and human rights activist Ivan Cepeda said he feared the attack could trigger other acts of violence, including 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 no 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.
In newspaper columns and on the radio, Londono hasn't just attacked the FARC as standard-bearer of Colombia's right wing.
He also firmly defends Uribe against allegations that the former president was too cozy with backers of illegal far-right militias. Dozens of political allies of both men have been imprisoned on criminal conspiracy convictions for colluding with the militias.
The militia leaders made peace with Uribe's government but most of their top leaders were extradited to the United States, where they are serving prison terms on drug trafficking convictions.
The FARC, meanwhile, suffered serious setbacks under Uribe, who left office in 2010, but continue to inflict casualties on security forces in ambushes and hit-and-run attacks.
It currently holds a French journalist who was accompanying security forces on a drug lab-destroying mission when rebels detained him two weeks ago. The FARC said on Sunday that it intends to free him soon.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.