Honduran police on Friday investigated a massacre of 28 passengers on a bus strafed by gunmen who left a chilling message to President Ricardo Maduro and crime-busting politicians.
Twenty-one others were wounded in the attack late Thursday in Chamelecon, 220 km north of here.
Maduro, in a television and radio broadcast, said the passenger bus "was machine-gunned," killing several passengers in an attack that has shocked the nation ahead of Christmas in what the local media described as a "massacre" committed by a gang of "assassins."
The president said seven children were among the 28 people killed. An earlier toll said 22 people had been killed and 35 had been injured.
Seven men stepped out of one or two vehicles that had stopped in front of the bus, then unloaded shots from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, security ministry spokesman Leonel Sauceda said.
"All of a sudden I heard shot after shot," a woman in her 20s who was wounded in the attack told reporters outside a hospital. "They would stop and fire again."
Maduro traveled to the stricken town overnight, where he has taken personal command of the hunt for those responsible for the massacre.
He called it "one of the most barbaric and cowardly acts in Honduran history" and offered a US$53,000-dollar reward for any information leading to the attackers' capture.
Police said a leaflet was found on the bus, asking Maduro "Where's your security?" and threatening him and other politicians behind the government's crackdown on organized crime.
"This attack did not target a particular individual, group of people or political party, as the leaflet the cowards left on the scene says, but I interpret it as an attack against all Hondurans," Maduro said.
The attackers' leaflet was signed "Merry Christmas. Sinchonero People's Liberation Movement" (sic). A guerrilla group named Cinchonero People's Liberation Movement was very active during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s.
However, police said privately it was the work of Salvadoran youth gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, since the note on the bus also warned Congress president Porfirio Lobo to keep out of next year's presidential election.
Lobo, one of four candidates vying for the right-wing National Party's nomination to run against Maduro in 2005, has been calling for tougher anti-crime policies, including the death penalty for criminal gangs.
In their note, the assailants warned that they were "tired of this trash (Porfirio) Pepe Lobo and his laws," saying they would kill any Lobo supporter and shoot at vehicles carrying Lobo posters, according to a transcript published on the Tiempo newspaper's website.
The note also criticizes Maduro and Security Minister Oscar Alvarez.
In October, the government mobilized 500 police officers and troops to protect buses in the capital Tegucigalpa, where "maras," or gangs, have demanded "war taxes" from people.
Gang activity is a growing problem in this country, and it recently attracted greater attention when US and Honduran officials warned that the al-Qaeda network was trying to recruit young Honduran gang members to infiltrate the US.
A government crackdown on gang crime, however, has at times been criticized as heavy-handed.
Maduro this year backed an amendment to the criminal code that allows up to 10 years in prison for gang membership. Some people have complained that they were jailed for simply sporting gang tattoos.