Colombian troops storm rebel stronghold
Saturday, February 23, 2002
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Colombian paratroopers and counterinsurgency forces stormed rebel territory Friday, launching an offensive to reconquer an area twice the size of New Jersey after a 3-year-old peace process failed.
Hundreds of soldiers recaptured an old army base outside the main rebel town of San Vicente Del Caguan on the zone's western fringe, raising the Colombian flag and singing the national anthem.
U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters ferrying the troops came under rebel fire. Three soldiers were wounded and three choppers were hit, Armed Forces chief Gen. Fernando Tapias said.
As many as 5,000 guerrillas were believed to be inside the zone but most of the top rebel commanders have left the area, he said. Colombia mobilized 13,000 troops for the operation.
Elsewhere in Colombia, FARC rebels struck down an electricity tower, attacked a power plant and damaged a natural gas pipeline, officials said Friday.
Toward the east, 1,000 soldiers moved on towns in a bid to re-establish government authority over a swath of southern Colombia given to the rebels in November 1998 to get them to talk peace and end a war now in its 38th year.
President Andres Pastrana canceled the peace talks when guerrillas hijacked a civilian airliner Wednesday and kidnapped a prominent senator. The FARC had insisted it wanted to negotiate a cease-fire but kept dynamiting electrical towers and attacking other targets.
A FARC statement distributed in San Vicente by a messenger Friday said the 16,000-strong rebel group was willing to talk to "a future government that shows interest in retaking the road to a political solution to the social and armed conflict."
"I hope that doesn't mean that we are going to go back to the negotiations, but after there are 100,000 more dead," military analyst Alfredo Rangel said.
Colombia elects a new president May 26, and Pastrana is barred from seeking a consecutive term.
Pastrana spoke by telephone with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday after asking for U.S. military aid for the offensive. The State Department said Friday in Washington that it may increase intelligence sharing with the Colombian military and accelerate deliveries of spare parts for military equipment.
Powell praised Pastrana, saying he should be commended for his patience in dealing with the rebels before calling off the talks.