At least three women were killed and nine injured after an explosive device detonated in a restroom in an busy upscale shopping centre in Colombia’s capital on Saturday, officials said.

The Andino shopping centre in an exclusive area of Bogota was evacuated after the blast at around 5 p.m. local time in the women’s lavatory. The Andino commercial centre was packed with people buying gifts ahead of Father’s Day celebrations on Sunday.

Police said the device was placed in a toilet bowl in the second-floor restroom. Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa denounced the attack.

“This cowardly terrorist attack in Andino really hurts me,” he said on Twitter.

He said the French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, 23, had been in Colombia the past six months volunteering in a poor neighbourhood and was preparing to return to France in the coming days. He said authorities were providing assistance to the victim’s mother, who was also in Bogota.

Streets surrounding the shopping centre were closed and buildings evacuated by police as ambulances raced to the scene and security officials tried to establish who was responsible for the blast. Bomb squad specialists combed the area in a search for additional devices.

Photographs on social media showed a woman slumped against the wall with a pool of blood around her and what appears to be a large shard of metal piercing her back. In front of her is another woman with her leg torn apart above the knee.

Another image showed the destroyed toilet cubicle with a blood-splattered handrail and debris strewn all over the floor.

President Juan Manuel Santos has ordered an investigation into the bombing.

Security improvements

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country’s long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents let down their guard.

Still, the Andino shopping centre would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall. 

A peace accord signed last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest guerrilla group, raised confidence bomb attacks might cease.

The country’s second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, in February exploded a device in Bogota that injured dozens of police.

Authorities said there have been threats of attacks in Bogota by the so-called Gulf Clan, a group of former right-wing paramilitary fighters who traffic drugs.

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