BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Police on Tuesday defused a pair of powerful firecrackers hidden in a Buenos Aires theater and apparently timed to explode just when a crowd of high-paying guests would have gathered to greet former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
A theater employee found the explosives lodged in a light fixture in the Gran Rex theater, authorities said. It was attached to a cellphone with an alarm set for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, just when Uribe would have joined a post-speech cocktail with business executives and other important guests, investigative Judge Norberto Oyarbide said.
"It is a simple device, but it could have caused deaths," Oyarbide said, adding that windows could have shattered, creating panic in the crowd. "The damage to Argentina would have been huge."
The judge spoke after surveying the scene where federal police bomb experts were searching for clues inside the historic theater on Corrientes Avenue in the heart of the Argentine capital.
Later Tuesday, federal police clarified that the device lacked damaging power, but would have made an extremely loud noise. Inside a small cardboard box wedged in the light fixture were two extremely loud firecrackers, each with 50 grams of black powder, wired to a nine-volt battery, a cellphone and an ignition device, police said.
"These kinds of fireworks (noisemaking bombs) are designed to produce extremely loud noises while causing little physical damage," the police statement said.
Colombia's defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, called the attempt "terrorism" and said "we reject any such action, no matter how small."
Just last week, a young man in Colombia's capital, Bogota, set off a bomb targeting Uribe's former interior and justice minister. The attack, still unsolved, killed two bodyguards and injured 39 people in a busy commercial district.
Uribe, who served as Colombia's president in 2002-10, was invited to speak Wednesday about his country's transformation as part of a symposium organized by WOM-Latam, a private company that organizes leadership seminars and sold tickets to the cocktail party for more than $500 each.
Oyarbide, the investigating judge, said that "God willing," the seminar, including Uribe's speech, would proceed as scheduled. Later Tuesday, organizers said the show would go on.
Uribe himself, in an email to The Associated Press, said that "we're going to leave it to the Argentine authorities manage the issue."
A popular conservative in a region dominated by leftist leaders, Uribe took a hard line against leftist rebels, leading to significant security gains during his presidency. But human rights activists criticize him for unlawful killings by the military and for making peace with far-right militias that committed thousands of murders.
Earlier this week, a coalition of leftists and Colombians living in Argentina said the symposium's organizers were falsely presenting Uribe as a great peacemaker, when in fact he committed "the most atrocious crimes."
Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires and Libardo Cardona in Bogota contributed to this report.