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21 Dead After Colombia Car Bombing     01/18 06:20

   BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Colombian authorities were scrambling to identify 
who was behind a brazen car bombing at a police academy in Bogota that has 
rattled residents and raised tough questions about lingering security threats 
in the wake of a peace deal with the nation's largest rebel group.

   Overnight, the death toll from the Thursday morning bombing more than 
doubled to 21, making it the deadliest attack in Colombia in over a decade.

   It proved especially unsettling because the target, the General Santander 
school, is one of the most protected installations in the capital and 
indications it may have been the result of a suicide bombing --- something 
unprecedented in decades of political violence in the Andean nation.

   President Ivan Duque, visiting the academy in the aftermath, was careful not 
to attribute blame to any armed group even while condemning what he called a 
"miserable" terrorist act that recalled some of bloodiest chapters of 
Colombia's recent past.

   "The terrorists are looking to intimidate us as a society and attack the 
state," Duque said in a televised address in which he declared three days of 
mourning. "Colombia will demonstrate that it is a strong state, united and 
won't break in the face of the dementia of these aggressions."

   Among those killed was a top-of-class female cadet from Ecuador, while two 
visiting students from Panama were among those injured

   With the help of security cameras, authorities were quick to identify the 
suspected bomber as a 56-year-old man with no criminal record named Jose 
Aldemar Rojas. He died in the attack.

   Chief Prosecutor Nestor Martinez said Rojas drove a 1993 Nissan pick-up 
loaded with 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of pentolite explosive past a security 
checkpoint and onto the school's leafy campus, where a start-of-the-year honor 
ceremony had just finished.

   There were reports, so far unconfirmed, that when bomb-sniffing dogs 
detected the explosives the driver got nervous and floored the vehicle past the 
barrier and onto the campus, where it exploded moments later in front of a red 
tile-roofed dormitory for female cadets.

   Videos shot on cellphones show panicked officers hauling injured colleagues 
on stretchers with debris and body parts strewn in front the skeletal steel 
remains of the still-burning truck.

   Little is known about Rojas. Records show he bought the car last year and 
had it inspected six months ago in the eastern city of Arauca, near the border 
with Venezuela.

   The same volatile area is a stronghold of the National Liberation Army, or 
ELN, the country's last remaining rebel group following a 2016 accord between 
the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that saw some 
7,000 rebels disarm.

   Investigators are reportedly looking into Rojas' possible ties with the 
rebel group after reports --- so far unconfirmed --- that he was a longtime 
explosives expert for an ELN cell who went by the alias Mocho Kiko.

   The ELN has been stepping up its attacks on police targets and oil 
infrastructure amid a standoff with the conservative Duque government over 
stalled peace talks. A year ago, the group claimed responsibility for the 
bombing of a police station in the coastal city of Barranquilla that left five 
officers dead.

   But until now the Cuban-inspired group, which is believed to have around 
2,000 guerrilla fighters, has never been capable or much interested in carrying 
out such a high profile act of violence. Thursday's attack was the deadliest 
since a 2003 car bombing against the elite Bogota social club El Nogal that 
left 36 dead, an incident that hardened Colombians' resolve against the FARC.

   Duque has demanded the ELN cease all attacks and kidnappings as a condition 
for restarting the talks and has condemned Venezuela and Cuba for allegedly 
providing a safe haven for rebel leaders even as their troops continue to sow 
violence in Colombia.

   For decades, residents of Bogota lived in fear of being caught in a bombing 
by leftist rebels or Pablo Escobar's Medellin drug cartel.

   But as Colombia's conflict has wound down, attacks have fallen to 
historically low levels and residents in turn have lowered their guard, 
something that magnified the shock at Thursday's carnage.

   "This is the maximum impact any terrorist act could have," said Jorge 
Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center.

   Restrepo said he expects the attack to be a defining moment for Duque, who 
was elected last year on a law and order platform highly critical of his 
predecessor's peacemaking but since taking office has taken a more moderate 

   Amid the tragedy there was an outpouring of solidary.

   Dozens of residents stood in line at four collection points throughout the 
city to donate blood to treat the more than 70 victims.

   Lorena Mora, 25, said she spent two anguishing hours trying to find out what 
happened to her brother, who entered the police school seven months ago. She 
eventually found him at the police hospital where most of the injured officers 
were transported. She said he was still stunned but otherwise well, except for 
a sprained knee.

   "When I managed to get inside and see him," she said, "I felt instant peace."


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