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Assailants kill 23 in Honduras bus attack
Updated: 2004-12-24 20:50

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Assailants claiming to be members of a revolutionary group opposed to the death penalty opened fire on a public bus in northern Honduras, killing at least 23 passengers and escalating an ongoing battle between gangs and a government dedicated to fighting them.

The shooting took place Thursday evening in the northern Atlantic city of Chamelecon, 125 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

The bus was driving through the heavily populated neighborhood of San Isidro when a car carrying an unknown number of armed attackers cut in front of it, forcing it to stop, police spokesman Deputy Commissioner Wilmer Torres said.

The assailants jumped out of the car and began shooting while attackers in a second car fired from behind and then alongside the bus, he said. Authorities weren't immediately certain how many riders were on the bus but believed the majority of them were women and children.

Sixteen of the victims died on the bus; seven others died after being taken to a hospital, Torres said. The genders and ages of the victims were not released.

The driver of the bus, Guillermo Salgado, died in the attack. His body was found slumped over the steering wheel.

Police arrested a suspect driving a car similar to one identified by witnesses as having been present at the attack. The suspect is an alleged member of violent gangs that have terrorized residents, mostly in the poor neighborhoods of Honduras' major cities.

The suspect was carrying a .38-caliber pistol and several automatic weapons, Torres said.

The assailants left a large piece of paper taped to the front windshield of the bus with a message saying they represented a revolutionary group that opposes the death penalty. The message contained "vulgar words" against congressional President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, Torres said.

The note warned that "people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse," Torres said.

The attack came just two days after Alvarez announced that authorities had uncovered plans by drug traffickers and criminals to assassinate Honduran President Ricardo Maduro and his family.

"The reports establish that drug traffickers and organized crime have given the gang members the necessary information for them to carry out the attack against the president ... and that worries us," Alvarez said at the time.

Maduro announced Monday that he was increasing security for himself and his family. After Thursday's attack, he offered his sympathy to the families of the victims and said he would fly to San Pedro Sula to meet with them.

Earlier this year, Alvarez claimed al-Qaida was trying to recruit gang members to carry out terror attacks, but U.S. and other Central American officials have said there is no evidence to support that.

Lobo Sosa is one of four candidates who will compete in February to determine the ruling National Party's presidential candidate for November elections. Lobo has suggested instituting the death penalty for severe crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping crimes for which the gang members are often accused. Honduras abolished the death penalty in the 1950s.

Honduran gangs claim more than 100,000 members and control poor neighborhoods in major cities, where they are known for extorting "protection" money from residents.

Maduro has waged a zero-tolerance campaign against gang activity. At his bidding, Congress approved a law in August 2003 that sentences gang members to up to 12 years in prison.

Gangs have responded with gruesome attacks, including the beheading and dismembering of victims, whose bodies have been left in public places.

"What happened tonight is a barbaric and cowardly act unlike very few we have seen in Honduras' history," Maduro said in an address broadcast nationally on radio and television stations Thursday. "It is an attack against all Hondurans."

The president said joint police-military operations had been launched to find Thursday's attackers. The government was offering a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to their capture.

"I'm asking the country to have confidence in their government, to not let anyone" interfere with national security, he said.

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