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Bomb kills one, injures 34

  • 2000-08-24
  • By Jorgen Johansson
Latvian government offers reward for information on double explosion at Riga shopping center

RIGA - Riga's Old Town saw two explosions Aug. 17 in shopping complex "Centrs," injuring 35, one fatally. Police, ambulances and firefighters responded within minutes.

Krists Leiskalns, spokesman for the state police, said he doesn't think there are any political motives behind the bombing, and that the police are currently working on four different theories.

"The first theory is business differences, second is terrorism, third is a crazy person and the last theory is revenge," Leiskalns said.

Leiskalns refused to say what sort of revenge could be involved in the attack on the shopping center.

A seemingly ordinary day in Riga ended up in terror, screams of pain and tears. During rush-hour shopping, at about 5.30 p.m. on Aug. 17, two bombs went off within 10 minutes in Centrs. The two explosions were heard several blocks away and windows shook fervently in the vicinity.

Maija Pusmucane, 53, worked in the baggage storage where the bombs were placed. She suffered severe burns on 60 percent of her body and was rushed to hospital. She was later transported to the Karolinska hospital in Sweden, where she died early on Aug. 21.

Rimi Baltija director Knut Kvisvik was also seriously injured. Kvisvik, a Norwegian, suffered 30 percent burns and was taken to a hospital in Norway after some brief surgery in Latvia. His condition has since stabilized.

Shattered glass from the explosions was scattered over a street running alongside the shopping mall. Rimi employees were hugging and crying. Friends and relatives rushed to the scene, and mobile phones permeated the background with constant ringing.

Per Venbakken, head of security inside the shopping center, said evacuation of the shopping center started immediately after the first explosion.

"After only three minutes everybody was out. Unfortunately, people started to walk back into the building," Venbakken said.

Venbakken said that the security system in Centrs is not bad, but added, "a security system can never be good enough."

The second bomb went off seven minutes later. This explosion was reported to be much more ferocious.

"I was sitting in a beer garden nearby with two colleagues, when we heard something that sounded like an explosion, but we're not sure," Ken Knox-Wolfe, a teacher at the international school in Jurmala said.

The three teachers moved closer down to the shopping center to get a better idea of what happened.

"Outside the entrance was a man on the ground, bleeding from his head, and his right leg was obviously broken in a strange angle below his knee," Knox-Wolfe said.

As the company moved away, the second bomb went off inside, causing people to storm out of the supermarket.

"It wasn't really until after the second bomb that people started running out," Knox-Wolfe said. "Nobody seemed to know what was going on."

The following day, Minister of Finance Gundars Berzins, posted a 25,000 lats (almost $42,000) reward to anyone who can contribute with valuable information on the explosions.

Petter Salomonsen, general director for the Norwegian-based Linstow Varner, which owns Centrs, said he doesn't want to speculate on the possible motive for the bombs.

"We don't think of this as an attack on a Rimi store, but more like an attack on a shopping center," Salomonsen said.

Salomonsen said the bombings in Centrs won't hamper Linstow Varner's plans on expanding their investments in Latvia.

Valdis Pumpurs, chief of the state police's criminal police, said at a press conference that a man, about 40 years old, could be linked to the explosions.

"It is too early to say exactly what this man has to do with this," said Pumpurs, who sustained minor injuries in the second blast.

Police released a composite drawing of a man with short, dark hair and distinct facial features wanted for questioning.

Pumpurs said the man is about 1.85 meters tall and rather heavy-set.

"He was wearing blue jeans and a light blue T-shirt. He was seen in the vicinity of Rimi the day before the blast and also shortly after the bombs went off," Pumpurs said.

Soon after the explosions, police began receiving bomb threats on a number of buildings, including another shopping complex and the Riga International Airport.

Police detained five people in connection with the nearly a dozen bomb threats, including an 8-year-old boy.

Less than a week after the bombing Centrs reopened. Two police officers and one security guard inside is checking every bag, suitcase and backpack. Many of the windows were covered by white drapes.

Inside, the atmosphere was sedate, with a far smaller crowd than usual. The area where the baggage storage was is sealed off by a huge wall.

Rimi employees wore a black band wrapped around the left arm in commemoration of Pusmucane.