- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia Huge explosions rocked Colombia's capital and the area around its parliament yesterday as hard-liner Alvaro Uribe entered the building to be sworn in as president of this troubled South American country. At least 15 persons were killed in the blasts, witnesses said.
Three blasts occurred within blocks of the parliament building as Senate leader Luis Alfredo Ramos prepared to give the oath of office to Mr. Uribe, who has vowed to wipe out rebels who have been fighting Colombian governments for 38 years.
At least one other explosion went off adjacent to the nearby presidential palace, wounding a policeman, who staggered bloodied from the scene. The blast chipped the stone wall of the palace and blew out windows.
Government warplanes were seen streaking above the capital after the blasts.
Witnesses reported seeing 10 dead bodies in the street and in a demolished shack in the poor Cartucho neighborhood, five blocks from the parliament.
The country's attorney general's office also said at least two others died in an explosion closer to the parliament.
Nobody took immediate responsibility for the blasts, nor was it clear what had caused them. Colombian rebels often are said to use inaccurate homemade mortars in their attacks.
Concerned about an assassination attempt by the rebels, Mr. Uribe had forgone the traditional outdoor ceremony in Bogota's colonial central plaza and moved the swearing in to the parliament building.
Army troops quickly sealed off the Cartucho neighborhood after the explosions. The government has been tearing down shanties in the area 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 next to him sobbed, saying her husband had died in the blasts.
Troops patrolled the streets, and combat helicopters thundered overhead during the inauguration.
Hours earlier, small bombs exploded in several neighborhoods of the capital, slightly injuring six persons and blowing out windows and chunks of sidewalk. No one immediately took responsibility for these attacks.
Amid unconfirmed police reports that rebels had planned to crash a plane into the parliament, Bogota's airspace was closed and an American P3 plane staffed with U.S. Customs Service and Colombian air force personnel patrolled overhead.
Hopes were high that Mr. 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, Mr. Uribe has worked in government for half his life. A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Oxford universities, he served two terms in his country's Senate, was mayor of his native Medellin, director of Colombia's civil aviation authority and governor of violence-ravaged Antioquia state.
Mr. Uribe inherits the decades-old war with rebels, which kills about 3,500 people every year. The war pits the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, against an outlawed right-wing paramilitary group and the government.
Mr. Uribe's father was fatally shot 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 his stance against the rebels is not motivated by revenge and pledges to be equally tough against right-wing militias and drug traffickers.
He also has promised to take on government corruption and reform the tax code.
He faces a country in economic turmoil, with about 64 percent of Colombians living below the poverty line, and more than 17 percent of city dwellers unable to find jobs.
Mr. Uribe, a workaholic and teetotaler, warned in a radio interview yesterday that he cannot perform miracles.
"To the Colombians I say: Expect action every day, but not miraculous results."
Immediately after being sworn in, Mr. Uribe planned to propose a referendum to almost halve the number of lawmakers and merge the two houses of parliament.
The blatant attack on the entrenched political class could provoke a pitched battle with the same congress whose backing he needs to push his other reforms.
"President Uribe is going to encounter obstacles in the road but also a lot of support if he follows through with the necessary reforms," said congressman Antonio Navarro.
Mr. Uribe says the reforms will cut back on government waste and allow more money to be diverted to fighting the war against the rebels. He also hopes to secure more funding from the United States, which in the past two years has given Colombia $1.7 billion, mostly in military aid.
The inauguration yesterday was attended by several Latin American presidents. Mr. Uribe also enjoys broad support from the White House, which sent a delegation that included Trade Representative Robert B. 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," Mr. Walters said.
Mr. Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, tried for three years to negotiate peace with FARC, the nation's largest rebel group.
The talks broke down in February without achieving substantial results.
Frustrated, most Colombians believe that now is the time for a tougher approach.
"The guerrillas don't want to talk," said shopkeeper Juan Manuel Martinez. "Uribe is going to take us into war because now we have to fight to save Colombia."

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