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Car bomb explodes outside U.S. Embassy in Peru, nine killed

(LIMA, Peru) - Three days ahead of a visit by President Bush, a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy in Lima, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens. The State Department said no Americans were killed in the blast, which was widely condemned as a terror attack.

In the chaos following the blast Wednesday evening, the victims _ including at least two police officers and a young man wearing roller skates _ lay in the rubble-strewn street. Prosecutor Maria del Pilar Peralta said at least nine people were confirmed dead.

The car bomb ripped through a district of upscale shops and restaurants at about 10:45 p.m. EST, damaging buildings and cars, but not harming the fortress-like embassy, which is set far back from the street.

Bush is set to arrive in Lima on Saturday for a meeting with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and leaders from Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. It was unclear how the attack might affect the president's travel plans. White House spokeswoman Anne Womack declined comment early Thursday.

U.S. Embassy officials issued a statement condemning ``the barbaric terrorist bombing.'' Toledo, speaking from a U.N. development meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, also condemned the attack.

``I will not permit democracy to be undermined by terrorist attacks,'' Toledo told Peru's leading radio station, Radioprogramas. ``We will not give one centimeter. I am going to apply a hard-line policy within the framework of the law.''

There was no claim of responsibility for the blast. It reminded many Peruvians of the guerrilla violence of the 1980s and '90s, when hundreds died in attacks by the Maoist Shining Path rebels and the smaller Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

``I pray it doesn't start again,'' said Regina Fetzer, 25, inspecting the damage to her Volkswagen Jetta near the scene of the attack early Thursday.

The street outside the embassy was littered with shards of glass, brick and charred car parts. The blast shattered windows in a nearby bank and hotel building and damaged at least 10 cars, including one that apparently contained the bomb. A small police truck was mangled, its hood peeled back and shredded.

Deputy fire commander Juan Piperis said at least 30 people were injured and taken to a nearby hospital. He estimated about 66 pounds of explosives had been used in the bomb.

No Americans were hurt in the blast, according to a State Department official in Washington. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined further comment.

Jose Victor Ortiz, 22, a business school student who lives nearby, rushed to the scene when he heard the explosion.

``I saw a mutilated body to my right and another on a stairway on the other side,'' he said. ``When I crouched down, I saw a policeman thrown down on the ground. He had glass encrusted in his cheek and his forehead and he was asking me to help him and that he couldn't feel his legs.''

U.S. Embassy officials condemned the attack and offered condolences in a statement early Thursday.

``We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families,'' the statement said. ``The United States government is providing all possible assistance to Peruvian authorities so those responsible for this horrific crime are brought to justice.''

Security in the capital has been boosted in anticipation of Bush's arrival on Saturday. Bush was to depart Thursday for the U.N. summit in Mexico before going on to Peru for his first visit to South America as president.

Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi said he was ``certain that there was no way President Bush will change his plans to visit Peru because of this terrorist attack.''

In a separate blast Wednesday, a small bomb exploded just before dawn outside an office of Peru's Spanish-owned telephone company, causing damage but no injuries, police said. Police said a man left the explosive in a backpack, then fled in a car.

Although Peru's guerrilla movements have been largely defeated, officials were quick to raise the possibility that the rebels were involved.

The last car bomb that went off in Lima occurred in May 1997, set by the Shining Path insurgency. The group was greatly weakened after the capture of its founder and other important leaders in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, Jhon Caro, a former director of Peru's anti-terrorism police, blamed the embassy attack on the Shining Path.

The attack was probably provoked by ``Bush's declarations that he is going to fight against terrorism around the world,'' Caro said.

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