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Death toll rises from Colombia club blast

©Associated Press
February 9, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's government blamed leftist rebels Saturday for a car bomb that ripped through an exclusive social club, killing 32 people, including six children, and injuring 162 in the worst terrorist attack in Bogota in more than a decade.

The bomb, which gutted the 11-story club Friday evening, was planted on the third floor inside a parking garage and was packed with 330 pounds of explosives, officials said.

The attack was a shock to capital residents accustomed to a war, now in its fourth decade, fought mostly in the countryside. Vice President Francisco Santos said he "had no doubt" the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was responsible.

He blamed the rebel organization for adopting the tactics of the drug lords who plague the country.

"Before, what the narcoterrorists used, now (the rebels) use without any concerns of conscience," Santos said.

Not since drug lord Pablo Escobar unleashed a bloody campaign to avoid extradition to the United States had Bogota seen an attack of Friday's magnitude. With Escobar's death in 1993 and the subsequent breakup of Colombia's large drug cartels, the rebels inherited control of the country's cocaine trade.

The FARC recently vowed to take its drug-financed war against the state to the cities and to attack the country's elite -- people like the businessmen and politicians who frequent El Nogal.

The rebel group did not claim responsibility. Local media outlets, however, speculated a message posted on a Web site used frequently by the rebels contained a veiled warning.

The message, signed by an unknown group and posted Thursday, complained bitterly of President Alvaro Uribe's hardline government, and of the prominent people who support it. The message ends: "We'll see on the 7th at six." The bomb exploded Friday, Feb. 7, shortly after 8 p.m.

On Saturday, firefighters searched through the rubble of the club, one of Colombia's most exclusive and a symbol of wealth and power that had some 2,000 members. Inside were restaurants, a mini-golf course, a gym and rooms for overnight guests. On Friday night, it was packed with revelers, businessmen attending meetings and a group of children that was to perform a ballet.

Though officials had held little hope that anyone was alive in the wreckage, rescuers found 12-year-old Maria Camila Garcia between the third and fourth floors, Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio said after touring the scene.

Garcia was in serious condition, hospital officials said. Her uncle, Mauricio Mugno, at the scene hoping for news of her, said her parents were killed.

Family members of missing employees and patrons of the club gathered Saturday near the building.

"We searched through all the clinics this morning and haven't found anything," said a tearful Rosa Maria Baracaldo, whose sister, Margo Alfonso, was working last night in the club and has not been heard from. "The rescue workers have told us that all the bodies inside are badly burned, and its difficult to recognize them."

Rescue workers set up a makeshift morgue in tents outside the building. Bodies, many of them charred from the fire which burned for two hours after the explosion, were brought out on stretchers. Rescue workers sat nearby at typewriters, taking down descriptions of the missing from relatives.

Each time a new body was brought down, relatives rushed to push photographs of their loved ones toward officials. Across the street from the club, many stopped in a Catholic church to pray.

Stories emerged of how more than 40 people, including several children, managed to escape from the fifth floor. While others died there, survivors slid down a large plastic tube -- apparently part of the building detached in the explosion -- which was near a hole where air came in through the smoke.

"That's how my small children got out," said Luis Carlos Naranjo, explaining that his 2-year-old daughter slid down the tube on the shoulders of her nanny. His 4-year-old son escaped the same way with the help of a waiter.

"The man's face was bleeding, but despite his injuries, he helped my son," said Naranjo, who was on the eighth floor when the bomb went off.

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