Assailants claiming to be mem-bers of a revolutionary group opposed to the death penalty opened fire on a public bus in northern Honduras, killing at least 23 passengers, mostly women and children, in an escalation of an on-going battle between gangs and the government.
The shooting occurred at about 7:40pm on Thursday in the city of Chamelecon, 200km north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
Police arrested a suspect who was driving a car similar to that identified by witnesses as present at the attack.
The suspect is an alleged member of violent gangs that have terrorized residents, mostly in the poor neighborhoods of Honduras' major cities.
The suspect was carrying a .38-caliber pistol and several automatic weapons, police spokesman Deputy Commissioner Wilmer Torres said.
"It was an unbelievable massacre," Torres said.
The assailants left a large piece of paper taped to the front windshield of the bus with a message saying they represented a revolutionary group that opposes the death penalty.
The message contained "vulgar words" against congressional President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, Torres said.
The assailants' note warned that "people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse," Torres said.
The attack came just two days after Alvarez announced that authorities had uncovered plans by drug traffickers and local criminals to assassinate Honduran President Ricardo Maduro and his family, as well as himself.
"The reports establish that drug traffickers and organized crime have given the gang mem-bers the necessary information for them to carry out the attack against the president ... and that worries us," Alvarez said at the time.
Maduro offered his sympathy to the families of the victims and said he was going to fly to San Pedro Sula to meet with them in person.
Earlier this year, Alvarez claimed al-Qaeda was trying to recruit gang members to carry out terror attacks, but US and other Central American officials have said there is no hard evidence to support that.
The bus was passing through the heavily populated neighborhood of San Isidro when a vehicle carrying an unknown number of armed attackers cut in front of it, forcing it to come to a halt, Torres said.
The assailants jumped out of the car and began shooting at the same time that other attackers in a second car fired from behind and then alongside the bus, he said.
The police spokesman said authorities did not yet know how many people were aboard the bus, but that the majority of the passengers were women and children.
Sixteen of the victims died aboard the bus while seven others died after being taken to a public hospital in the nearby city of San Pedro Sula, Torres said.
The sex and ages of the victims were not released.
The driver of the bus, Guillermo Salgado, also died in the attack, along with his helper, Victor Ramirez.
Salgado's body was found slumped over the vehicle's steering wheel.
Honduran gangs claim more than 100,000 members and control poor neighborhoods in the country's major cities.
The gangs are known for extorting "protection" money from residents as well as committing other crimes.