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41 troops suspended over deaths of 6 children

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BOGOTA, Colombia — A Colombian army investigator announced Friday he was suspending 41 officers and soldiers who were allegedly involved in the shooting deaths of six schoolchildren.

The killings Tuesday of the children hiking with their classmates shocked the nation and forced the military to explain how such a tragedy could have happened.

Also on Friday, the police said two other children were killed, and five people injured, by a bomb planted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces Colombia, the country's largest guerrilla army.

The homemade bomb went off Thursday night in the village of Carmen de Bolivar, 70 miles from the port city of Cartagena, which President Clinton will visit Aug. 30, police said. The rebel group has not commented on allegations they were behind the blast.

Military investigators are examining the claims of top army officials who say the six students were shot during a firefight between rebels of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and government troops.

Gen. Jairo Duvan Pinada's announcement of the suspensions of five noncommissioned officers and 36 privates came hours after the ELN denied involvement.

In a statement, the ELN called for an international investigation of the deaths of the children, aged 6 to 15. Four children were also wounded.

The ELN statement said its combatants were not in the area when the shootings occurred outside the town of Pueblo Rico, about 125 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota.

The claims by the ELN, the second largest Marxist group in Colombia, back up the account of an adult witness who has said government troops fired on the children without provocation and that no guerrillas where in the area.

Pinada told reporters that he was treating the deaths of the six children as homicides.

The military investigation comes as some 43 investigators from Colombian state prosecutors' offices and from an autonomous Colombian human rights watchdog group, the People's Defense Council, are conducting separate inquiries into the children's killings.

President Andres Pastrana has vowed to uncover the truth behind the deaths.