BOGOTA, Colombia - Police discovered a roadside bomb outside a town hours before a U.S. senator and U.S. ambassador were to visit, authorities said Friday.
There were conflicting reports on whether Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson were the targets of the bomb found Thursday alongside a road from an airport to the town of Barrancabermeja.
Police Col. Jose Miguel Villar said it appeared to be an assassination attempt. But the national police later said in a statement that the bomb ''had no relation to the visit of the American commission.''
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said it was not an assassination attempt on the Wellstone-Patterson and implied that the party never came within a mile of the area where the device was found.
''There was not - I repeat, not - an assassination attempt made against Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and our ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson,'' Reeker said.
Patterson told State Department officials by telephone that she did not see it as an assassination attempt, a department official said. Another State Department official added that it is not unusual for such devices to be found in Barrancabermeja, which has a reputation for violence.
Hours before the two U.S. officials flew into Barrancabermeja on Thursday, police discovered the explosive device, consisting of two shrapnel-wrapped land mines, alongside the road leading from the airport to the town and arrested a suspected member of the rebel National Liberation Army, or ELN, Villar said.
The suspect, Bernardo Alvarez Duarte, was refusing to talk, police said, and it was not immediately clear how some authorities had concluded the U.S. delegation was not a target.
The land mines each carried a 6-pound explosive charge, were attached to cables and a detonator and were ready to be set off, Villar said in a phone interview from Barrancabermeja, 155 miles north of Bogota, the capital.
''If the bomb had gone off, it could have caused immense damage,'' Villar said. ''It would have spread shrapnel over a wide area and could have taken out 10 or 15 people.''
Many residents of Barrancabermeja had known the U.S. delegation was going to arrive. But security forces had kept confidential plans to transfer the party from the airport to the town by helicopter. Even if the bombs had exploded, the delegation would not have gone anywhere near them.
Villar said the Americans were probably the target, but could not absolutely confirm it.
Washington supports the Colombian military in its fight against the ELN and a bigger rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. However, the ELN is seeking peace concessions from the Colombian government, and an attack on senior U.S. officials would probably put those concessions out of reach.
Barrancabermeja is the most violent town in Colombia, with almost 500 politically related murders this year alone, according to human rights activists. Right-wing paramilitary squads and rebels have been preying on the townspeople and fighting for control of the region.
Wellstone, a second-term senator and a member of the foreign relations committee, arrived in Colombia on Tuesday night and left on Friday. He visited Barrancabermeja to lend support to human rights activists there.