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Subway Bombing in Chile Provokes Fears Ahead of Coup Anniversary

The blast — called the worst terrorist attack since Chile's return to democracy in 1990 — created panic and jitters across Santiago.

by Nicolás Ríos
Sep 9 2014, 6:10pm

Photo by Nicolás Ríos

A bomb exploded Monday in a subway station shopping center in Santiago, Chile, injuring 14 people and stoking fears of more attacks ahead of a significant date for Chilean society — the September 11, 1973 anniversary of the coup d'etat that marked the start of Chile's military dictatorship.

The government called the explosion a terrorist attack and said it would invoke Chile's controversial "anti-terrorist law" as investigators hunted for at least one suspect who placed the explosive device — a fire extinguisher filled with gunpowder and set to a timed detonator — inside a trash can in a shopping center at the underground Escuela Militar station.

The bomb went off at 2:04pm, during the busy lunch hour in the upper-class district of Los Condes, in eastern Santiago. At least 14 people were injured, several of them seriously. A 61-year-old custodian had a finger amputated as a result of the blast. Five victims were still hospitalized as of Tuesday.

No individual or groups have come forward to claim responsibility for the attack, but the incident provoked a forceful response from Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and set nerves on edge across Santiago, where dozens of bombs have been planted this year. Many explosive devices have been found in recent months and weeks, suggesting a ramping up of potential attacks that are sometimes linked to or blamed on anarchist groups. 

In July, a similar fire-extinguisher bomb went off inside a subway car at the Los Dominicos station after the train had been cleared of passengers, leaving no injuries.

"There have been 29 bombs placed [in Santiago] this year, which we are investigating as cases of anarcho-terrorism," Christián Fuenzalida, director of communications for Chile's federal prosecutor, told VICE News on Tuesday.

In images captured moments after Monday's blast, smoke fills the hallways of the station as victims are seen evacuating. The man who filmed this footage told VICE News he was working just 10 meters away from the trash bin that exploded.

Above, cell-phone footage shot by Jean Pierre Ordóñez moments after the Sept. 8 blast.

"All of a sudden I heard a deafening sound," said Ordóñez, 22. "First we thought it has been a car accident, but then we saw the injured. They were bleeding and screaming in a state of shock. That's when I started filming."

Images later circulated online of the clock used to set off the bomb and the supposed detonator.

An estimated 200 bombs have been discovered or detonated in Chile in the past decade, near banks, government buildings, police stations, and churches. None resulted in serious injuries, making Monday's blast the worst terrorist attack since the return to democracy in Chile in 1990, media reports said.

"This is an abominable act, so we are going to apply all the weight of the law, including the anti-terrorist law, because those responsible for this act will have to respond," said Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who on Tuesday held a meeting with her national security council to review the blast.

"Chile will keep being a safe country," Bachelet said.

Bachelet's mother, Angela Jeria, had been in the Escuela Military station shopping center when the bomb went off, Chile's interior minister confirmed. Jeria was not injured and authorities did not say she was specifically targeted in the attack.

An anti-terror law is inflaming tensions in Chile's indigenous turf war. Read more here.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet addresses the public after a national security meeting on Tuesday, along with members of her cabinet. Photo via Presidencia de Chile.

The attack created panic and jitters across Santiago, a bustling and stable metropolitan region of 6.3 million people, where subway ridership is increasing. In the hours after the blast, several false alarms or suspicious packages were reported, and an image of a purported graffiti scrawl warning that the "next" attack would be against a street bus went viral on social media, reports said.

The veracity of the image or threat had not been confirmed by authorities.

"I'm afraid to return," Patricia Frez, a woman who worked inside the Escuela Militar station, told VICE News after the attack. "We don't know what is going to happen, because September 11 is coming up and maybe they will try to repeat something like that."

The anniversary of the 1973 coup exposes the deep division that persists in Chile between those who supported the military dictatorship and those who actively detest the legacy of the period in which thousands of leftists or suspected dissidents were killed of "disappeared" by the military regime.

Each year, the date is marked by protests that sometimes turn violent between hooded demonstrators and police.

São Paolo police break up subway strike with rubber bullets and tear gas. Read more here.

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