At least 16 police killed in attack on remote post
Thursday, November 2, 2006
By TOBY MUSE
The Associated Press
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Hundreds of leftist rebels bombarded a remote police station with makeshift mortars in a pre-dawn attack Wednesday and ambushed a column of police reinforcements, killing at least 16 officers, authorities said.
The six-hour assault in the village of Tierradentro, 230 miles northwest of Bogota, was the bloodiest since President Alvaro Uribe was re-elected in May in a landslide that endorsed his get-tough policy with the rebels.
Authorities blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC. At least 10 police officers were missing and four civilians wounded, said Jairo Lopez, the top security official for Cordoba state, where the attack occurred.
Analysts said the attack was part of a broader campaign by the rebel group.
"This is a nationally coordinated offensive by the FARC," said political analyst Leon Valencia. "The FARC is looking to reclaim territory that was once held by the [far-right] paramilitaries."
He said about 450 rebels took part in the attack. It comes two weeks after Uribe called off talks with the FARC over a possible prisoner swap, blaming the rebels for a car bombing at a military base in Bogota.
Guerrillas attacked the Tierradentro police post about 2:30 a.m. with cylinder bombs, killing two officers, said national police spokesman Alberto Cantillo. The besieged officers radioed for reinforcements, and 14 officers dispatched from Montelibano, about an hour away by road, were ambushed and killed, he added.
Attack helicopters and warplanes were called in, said Gen. Jorge Ballesteros, commander of the air force. The Defense Ministry said army troops recovered the bodies of three guerrillas as the rebel column withdrew.
The army and police commanders flew to the combat zone.
Colombia's military and its U.S. backers had contended that they had weakened the FARC to the point where it was down to about 12,000 fighters and was no longer able to launch large-scale assaults.
The FARC, which has been fighting the government for more than four decades, reaffirmed in a statement Tuesday its desire for a prisoner swap that would free some 60 hostages in exchange for about 500 rebels.
"These events show that the desire for peace on the part of the FARC does not exist," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said after the attack.
The Tierradentro police station was recently built on orders of the president, responding to residents' fears that rebels were preparing a campaign to seize control of the mountainous coca-growing zone. The basis for cocaine, coca has long been a funding source for the country's warring factions.
Cordoba state is a traditional stronghold of landowner-backed militias known as paramilitaries that emerged in the 1980s. The militias have nominally disbanded under a 2004 peace deal with the government.
The FARC insists the paramilitaries remain intact and, in an apparent signal to Uribe that it has not been weakened, has unleashed a series of attacks across Colombia in recent days, setting off car bombs and downing electrical towers.
Colombia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, getting some $600 million a year.
Uribe has used the funds to create new counterinsurgency units, buy UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and boost the number of police and soldiers across the country, making major highways and the capital safer.
He has also implemented a strategy of setting up police outposts in every municipality, reversing a previous policy that had abandoned much of the countryside.