Mexican rebels claim responsibility for latest pipeline bombings

WASHINGTON — A shadowy rebel group in Mexico claimed responsibility Tuesday for the bombings of six oil and natural gas pipelines in Veracruz state and threatened further such actions unless authorities free two of their comrades now held in Mexican jails.

The Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario as it's known in Spanish, or EPR) said in a statement posted on a Spanish Web site that its operatives had placed 12 explosive charges in as many locations and said they activated all simultaneously at 2 a.m. on Monday.

Mexican investigators have linked the latest spate of bombings to similar attacks earlier this summer for which the EPR also claimed responsibility, McClatchy Newspapers has learned.

Investigators in the town of La Antigua dismantled an unexploded device that used 9-volt batteries and a watch to set off construction-grade explosives packed in a cylindrical case resembling a fire extinguisher. They said they believed Monday's scattered blasts in Veracruz were caused by similar devices, McClatchy learned.

The watch was the same brand as one found in similar bombings in the state of Oaxaca for which the EPR claimed responsibility.

As the pipeline fires burned out on Tuesday, carmaker Volkswagen AG announced it would shut down production for a week because one bomb knocked out distribution of natural gas to parts of Puebla state, which borders Veracruz. Vitro, a Mexican firm and the world's largest glassmaker, also announced that it was forced to shut down some manufacturing operations.

EPR's latest demand, posted on the research Web site of the Center for Documentation of Armed Movements, charged the Mexican government with conducting a "dirty war" against Mexican peasants. In previous communiques, EPR identified them as Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez, who reportedly disappeared in the poor state of Oaxaca late last year. EPR said these "political/military actions" wouldn't stop until their two colleagues were returned alive.

A U.S. official with knowledge of the bombing investigation said Monday's attacks and the bombings in July showed that whoever attacked the pipelines possesses a high level of skill and seeks to disrupt a vital link in Mexico's economy.

"They know what they're doing. You can't download this from the Internet like a lot of stuff. They do need some type of training," said the official, who demanded anonymity in order to speak freely.

Monday's bombings, as in July, targeted shear valves, which control the flow of product through a pipeline. The bombs were placed to maximize the damage to flow in two directions.

Mexico is the second-largest exporter of oil to the United States, after Canada, averaging 1.46 million barrels per day through June. If bombers were to target oil production or export terminals next, they could send world oil prices soaring.

"It hasn't had a significant market impact because it doesn't directly affect international trade ... but it does raise questions about political stability in Mexico and the potential for militants to target production centers or pipelines that could more directly affect exports," said Antoine Halff, director of energy research for Fimat USA in New York, which trades contracts for future deliveries of oil.

Oil traders are watching developments in Mexico closely because the country's proximity to the U.S. market makes it uniquely important.

"Any potential disruption in exports will have a particularly significant effect on markets because it will have an immediate effect," Halff said.