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Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 01:46 GMT
Colombian police raid hit by explosion
Blast crater
The blast flattened houses and left a massive crater
At least 16 people have been killed in an explosion apparently triggered as police tried to stop an alleged presidential assassination plot.

The dead included a six-year-old girl, and up to 30 other people were said to have been injured in the blast in the Colombian city of Neiva.

This is just horrible, and Dantesque

Hector Osorio
Mayor of Neiva
The authorities suggested left-wing rebels had detonated either a bomb or a cache of mortars, as police raided a house in the Villa Magdalena area after a tip-off.

They said the police raid was ordered to foil a plot by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to bring down the plane of President Alvaro Uribe on Saturday.

Rescuers fight their way through the rubble
Rescuers fought their way through the rubble
A regional official, Sandra Serrato, said the girl and nine police officers were among the dead.

Colombia is torn by a four-decade civil war between the government and rebels, which claims the lives of thousands of people every year.

Earlier this month, suspected FARC rebels detonated a car bomb at a club in Bogota, killing 35 people in a blow against President Uribe's tough security policies.

US investigators, who came to Bogota to help the inquiry, have concluded that the El Nogal Club blast was caused by a 200kg (440lb) bomb in a car, parked in an interior garage directly underneath a bar and restaurant.

Mortars charge

President Uribe, who has survived several assassination attempts, was to travel to Neiva on Saturday for a security meeting with regional officials.

Hernando de Valenzuela, head of the local prosecutor's office, said the explosion involved weapons intended to kill Mr Uribe.

"They were mortars to shoot down the presidential plane," he said.

Neiva's chief investigator was among those killed in the dawn explosion.

"This is a tragic toll, all innocent victims. This is just horrible, and Dantesque," said Mayor Hector Osorio.

A local police commander said that his forces were tipped off that they would find material in four houses.

One house yielded nothing, while two others contained detonating devices. It is unknown exactly what was in the house where the explosion happened.

Five houses were destroyed and 30 were reported severely damaged in the blast, which went off in the Villa Magdalena area at 0545 local time (1045 GMT) on Friday.

The explosion left a hole 4.5 metres (15 feet) deep in the ground.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jeremy McDermott
"The House.....in the southern city of Neiva was a trap"

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