Suspected rebels attack in eastern Colombia

Saturday, December 21, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Suspected rebels opened fire on a police station and set off a car bomb in an attack in eastern Colombia that left four people dead and 17 wounded Friday.

Police believe the attackers were members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, which has a strong presence in the region and has been blamed for recent attacks on media outlets there.

Army Gen. Jorge Duvan Pineda said the assault was in retaliation for the capture by police of local ELN leader Grimaldo Alvarez, known as "The Grandfather," and two other rebels earlier in the day.

The attack began when three carloads of rebels drove up to the police post in Cucuta, a city on the Venezuelan border 250 miles northeast of Bogota, and began shooting at police, police commander Col. Edgar Orlando Vale told Caracol Radio.

Police fought back, killing one of the attackers. A civilian outside the police station was also killed in the crossfire.

The rebels then fled, leaving behind a vehicle filled with 55 pounds of dynamite. The vehicle exploded in front of the police station, killing two officers and destroying the station along with a nearby house and motorcycles.

The violence left 14 residents and three police officers wounded, police said.

Another car bomb was discovered and deactivated on the outskirts of Cucuta later Friday morning, Vale said.

In southwest Colombia, meanwhile, rebels detonated a bomb where police were setting up a registration checkpoint for cars entering and leaving the city of Neiva. The explosion Friday wounded three police officers and two civilians in the city 150 miles southwest of Bogota, said police Col. Luis Alejandro Gomez.

Police blamed members of Colombia's largest rebel group -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC -- for that attack.

Colombia is torn by a 38-year civil war that pits the leftist rebels against the government and right-wing paramilitary groups. About 3,500 people, mainly civilians, die in the fighting each year.

On Thursday night, two gunmen entered a bar in the town of Tame -- just miles from Cucuta -- and killed five city hall employees, the army said.

Jorge Antonio Bernal, the mayor of Tame, a town 240 miles northeast of Bogota, ordered residents into their homes for the night as authorities searched for the gunmen.

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