Colombia facing widening war

Friday, February 22, 2002

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Military jets flew hundreds of sorties against a major rebel stronghold Thursday, bringing Colombia's 38-year civil war into a potentially bloodier phase after the peace process was abruptly halted.

Bombs were falling on rebel territory just hours after President Andres Pastrana -- angered by a rebel hijacking of a civilian airliner -- broke off peace talks and condemned the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The government ordered 13,000 troops to advance on the rebel stronghold, and three planeloads of counterinsurgency troops landed at an airport in Florencia, a three-hour drive to the west.

Army officials said 85 targets were hit in more than 200 sorties against the rebel safe haven, a Switzerland-sized area that was the site of the peace negotiations.

The government did not comment on casualties, but there were unconfirmed reports that the aerial bombardment hit the tiny hamlet of Rubi, killing and injuring civilians.

A woman reached by two-way radio in Rubi said a boy about 4 years old and an adult were killed and four people were wounded. The woman, who gave her name only as Adriana, pleaded for medical supplies.

Officials in San Vicente del Caguan, the rebel zone's main town, said they would try to send an ambulance at daylight.

The warplanes' targets included clandestine airstrips and rebel training camps in the zone, which Pastrana ceded the area to the FARC in November 1998 in an effort to bring the 16,000-strong rebel army to the negotiating table. The rebel haven in southern Colombia is sparsely populated, with about 100,000 people.

Bloody fight

A top army commander predicted a bloody fight, but there were no signs that military troops had yet entered the zone.

"It's dicey, and we will surely suffer casualties, but we have a moral obligation to win this war," Gen. Euclides Sanchez told Caracol Radio.

Residents in San Vicente del Caguan posted white flags at their homes. "The white flags symbolize peace. We don't want anything to happen," said homemaker Amelia de Ficaro, 68.

Citizens stripped six vehicles abandoned by the rebels along a road outside town. Also left behind was a sign that referred to U.S. anti-drug aid to Colombia. "The gringos give the arms. Colombia provides the dead," it said. Some 3,500 people are killed annually in the 38-year war.

Washington support

The escalation comes as Washington is considering expanding training and equipment deliveries to the Colombian military. At any given time, there are about 250 U.S. military personnel, 50 civilian employees and 100 civilian military contractors in Colombia.

Sanchez said none were participating in Thursday's offensive.

The U.S. government has limited its military aid to counternarcotics operations but has also labeled the FARC a terrorist organization -- leaving open the possibility it could provide aid to fight the group.

The Bush administration has asked Congress to authorize $98 million to train and arm a Colombian army brigade to protect an oil pipeline.

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