BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A powerful explosion, which the Argentine government described as a terrorist attack, destroyed the Israeli Embassy in downtown Buenos Aires yesterday. The blast killed at least 10 people and wounded almost 100, including 13 children from a nearby school.
The huge explosion, which appeared to have been set off by a car bomb, rocked the central part of the city at 3 p.m. with a blast that could be heard three miles away. The five-story building was almost totally demolished, and a plume of smoke rose hundreds of feet from the rubble.
"All the indications lead us to believe it was a terrorist attack that has come from people outside the country, a group of foreigners who are working in Buenos Aires," said President Carlos Saul Menem at a news conference late yesterday evening. He did not provide any details that led to his conclusion.
He said the explosion was most likely created by a device that used between 45 and 90 pounds of high explosive.
The president added that it was still not clear whether the bomb exploded outside the embassy or inside. He noted that construction was going on at the normally tightly guarded embassy and that "explosives could have been brought in with the construction material."
Interior Ministry officials said yesterday afternoon that it was most likely a car bomb.
Even as Mr. Menem placed the number of dead at 10, rescue workers continued to dig at the rubble uncertain whether there were still victims beneath the debris.
An anonymous caller with a foreign accent telephoned Radio Mitre, the most widely listened to in the country, and said the attack was carried out by a pro-Palestinian group, according to journalists from the radio station.
Mr. Menem said that Argentina had secured all its airports and points of exit to prevent the escape of those responsible for the bombing. He said he had asked both Israel's Mossad secret service and the U.S. CIA to help in the investigation.
The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Arens, who was in Washington, said that while he did not know which group was responsible, the explosion was "part of a terrorist campaign which is being waged against Israel by all kinds of Muslim holy warriors and Palestinian terrorists."
The five-story Israeli Embassy, located at the corner of Arroyo and Suipacha streets, was little more than a sunken shell and a pile of rubble from the impact of the blast. Israeli officials said at least 80 people were inside the building and there was one report that as many as 30 could be trapped by fallen beams, stones and cement.
Yitzhak Shefi, the Israeli ambassador, was not in the embassy at the time but rushed to the scene.
It was the second attack on Israeli diplomats in a week. Last Saturday an Israeli diplomat and three others people were killed in a car bomb attack in Turkey for which responsibility was taken by the Islamic Holy War and a group calling itself the Islamic Revenge Organization.
The government news agency Telam reported that a woman who said she witnessed the explosion said she saw a car catch fire in front of the embassy moments before the explosion.
Hundreds of residents crowded around the four square blocks that were cordoned off by the police. Women called out for their husbands who they feared had been buried by the blast. Two bodies and several body parts, which rescue workers covered with pieces of wood or metal sheeting for later retrieval, were strewn on the once-bucolic street of carved sandstone facades.
Trees that previously had shaded the stretch of Arroyo were lacerated and blown down. Amid frantic and often panicky activity, the smell of dust and freshly shredded leaves permeated the air. Thousands of windows were shattered for six city blocks.
Federal police also announced a citywide alert for the protection of synagogues, schools and other sites of Jewish organizations.
The blast shook this city where Argentines pride themselves on their low crime rate, sophisticated fashion and a city tempo that tends to revolve around sidewalk cafes.
"I have never, even during the Dirty War period, felt an explosion like that," said one Buenos Aires resident, referring to a time in the late 1970s when the police and the ruling military junta battled leftist guerrillas. More than 9,000 people disappeared in that period.