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Escobar's hand seen in Bogota bomb atrocity

WHEN HE declared war on the Colombian state two weeks ago, the fugitive cocaine baron, Pablo Escobar, authenticated his handwritten statement in his usual way: with a thumbprint. He has not claimed responsibility for Saturday night's bombing of a Bogota shopping area. He never does. But neither President Cesar Gaviria nor the capital's residents needed a thumbprint to guess whose hand was behind the latest atrocity.

At least 20 shoppers, four of them children, have so far died from the remote-controlled car bomb that rocked Bogota's 9th Avenue shopping centre at the peak shopping hour on Saturday. Around 70 were badly injured.

There was no mistaking the bombers' intention. They parked a car, loaded with 220lb of high explosive, outside a stationer's and bookshop where parents and children were making last-minute purchases of school books and equipment before today's resumption of classes. Minutes later, the bombers detonated the car by remote-control, killing eight shoppers instantly and fatally wounding 12 more.

'Intelligence information indicates that the narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar and what is left of his murderous organisation are responsibile for this murderous act,' President Gaviria, on a visit to Ecuador, said yesterday. 'But the government and the citizenry will not let themselves be intimidated.'

'The Medellin cartel is trying to cause panic among the population,' said one Bogota policeman. Escobar founded and heads the cartel, which flooded the US and Europe with cocaine in the Seventies and Eighties.

Colombian television showed a distraught woman, as she stepped among debris and bodies looking for her son, shouting into the camera: 'You miserable . . . My God, why haven't they caught him.' There was no doubt she was referring to Escobar, who, at least until recently, was still considered something of a Robin Hood figure in poor areas of his home province, Antioquia, where he is assumed to be in hiding from a force of thousands of police and troops dedicated to finding him.

Almost daily killings of policemen, coupled with massive pay- offs, have allowed him to remain free since he escaped from a luxury prison, known as The Cathedral, outside Medellin last July. It emerged he had been running the prison himself, with no shortage of women visitors or liquor, as well as satellite phones and fax machines to continue his 'business'.

A smaller bomb that went off yesterday near the home of Escobar's elderly parents in Medellin, Colombia's second city, caused no casualties but smacked of retaliation, either by a rival cartel or renegade lawmen, against the previous night's atrocity.

In his declaration of war on 15 January, Escobar demanded the same rights as the country's politically-motivated left-wing guerrillas. He promised to sow panic until the government agreed.