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Colombia: Bombing at mall kills 3, including French woman

Firefighters arrive at the Centro Andino shopping center in Bogota, Colombia, Saturday, June 17, 2017. A explosion rocked the mall, one of the busiest in Colombia's capital, killing at least one woman and injuring 11 others. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

BOGOTA — A homemade bomb placed rocked a busy mall in Colombia's capital filled with Father's Day shoppers over the weekend, killing three people, including a French woman, and wounding nine others.

Witnesses said they were evacuated from movie theaters and stores after the Saturday evening blast at the upscale Centro Andino in Bogota's tourist district. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene and the injured were taken to a hospital, where two later died.

Police said a potent explosive, possibly made of ammonium nitrate, placed behind a toilet in a women's second-floor bathroom caused the destruction. It was detonated around 5:30 p.m. local time.

Mayor Enrique Penalosa called it a "cowardly terrorist bombing" and attention immediately focused on the National Liberation Army, which is the last rebel movement still active in Colombia. The group, known as the ELN, carried out a spate of recent attacks against mostly police targets in Bogota, but leaders denied involvement in the latest bombing.

President Juan Manuel Santos made a late-night visit to the shopping mall, where he strongly condemned the attack but declined to speculate on who was responsible. He said he would meet with top security advisers yesterday before heading out on a previously-scheduled tour of Europe that includes a planned visit to France.

"The best answer to cowardly terrorism is to not let it unnerve us," he said. "The French know perfectly how to respond to these terrorist attacks and we Colombians too have the will not to let ourselves be intimidated."

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Penalosa said the 25-year-old French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, had been in Bogota for six months volunteering at a school in a poor neighborhood. He said she was preparing to return to France in the coming days in the company of her mother, who was with her in Bogota.

Huynh worked with a French-backed charity helping people displaced by Colombia's long conflict gain the skills and expertise needed to rebuild. A member of the group, Proyectar Sin Fronteras, declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press, but the group posted on its web page a black ribbon in memory of Huynh.

France condemned the attack "with the greatest firmness" and offered condolences to the French victim's family.

"France stands at the side of Colombia in this painful moment," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday without offering any further details about the victim.

The ELN, which is engaged in long-running peace talks with the government, rejected accusations it was behind the attack.

"We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded and reckless accusations," ELN negotiators at peace talks taking place in neighboring Ecuador said on Twitter. "This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process."

The ELN in February claimed responsibility for a bombing near Bogota's bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 other people. But the group said it doesn't target civilians.

Penalosa urged residents of Bogota's wealthier districts to be on high alert but cautioned that there was no hint of other attacks being planned.

The government last year reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which was much bigger than the ELN. Some analysts attribute an uptick in violence in Colombian cities to the ELN's desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country's long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents have let down their guard

Still, the Andino shopping center would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall.

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