BOGOTA, Feb 26, 2002 (AFP) – At least three leftist rebels were killed in fierce clashes with army patrols in towns surrounding Bogota on Tuesday, bringing Colombia’s long-running internal conflict ever closer to the nation’s capital.
The three Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were killed in an ongoing battle a mere 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the capital near the town of Fomeque, a spokesman from the regional military command told AFP.
Seven civilians from a group the FARC kidnapped at a roadblock on Monday were also set free, the spokesman said. Local news reports indicated that the civilians included two ten-year-olds, and that ten more remained hostage.
Soldiers also clashed with rebels outside towns located 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast and 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Bogota, local government officials announced.
Rebels on Tuesday also blasted a key regional bridge and communication towers throughout the region surrounding Bogota, leaving thousands without telephone service.
The upsurge in violence comes after FARC guerrillas on Saturday kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, from the small Green Oxygen Party. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has connections with the rebels, said he has taken steps to convince the FARC to set her free.
Meanwhile, soldiers carefully entered towns in the steamy tropical southern region that until days ago was controlled by the FARC, Latin America’s most powerful insurgency.
Colombia’s nearly four-decade-long internal war intensified last Wednesday, when President Andres Pastrana ended peace talks with the FARC after rebels hijacked a commercial plane and kidnapped a senator and a passenger on board.
Soon after — and with only two-and-a-half hours’ notice, ending at 0500 GMT February 21 — Pastrana canceled authorization for the FARC to occupy the Switzerland-sized region that had virtually been ceded to them in November 1998 as an enticement to reach a peace deal.
At that time warplanes struck more than 80 FARC targets in the region, officials said. But contrary to earlier reports, bombing sorties have continued at intervals, a well-placed military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The source added that military planners believe it will take at least six months for the army to secure the former leftist haven.
“The troops have to move with much care, and it is very extensive area,” the source said.
The plan is to first occupy the five urban areas — all small towns, the largest with 20,000 residents — then spread out into the jungle, according to the source.
Following an attack Sunday on the city’s water supply, maverick Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus announced Tuesday that he would paint orange all infrastructure vital for survival.
“Not even in the most ferocious wars around the world” are such targets hit, Mockus said. The attack caused little damage, waterworks officials said.
On Tuesday Aires Airline pilots successfully flew the passenger airplane that had been hijacked last Wednesday back to Bogota. The rebel hijackers landed the German-built De Havilland Dash 8-300 with 34 people aboard on a narrow highway in southern Colombia.
Flying the plane out was as risky at landing it, pilot Ricardo Calderon told reporters. With only 300 meters (yards) available in which to take off, seats were stripped out to make the plane as light as possible.
The plane will be in for repairs for 30 days before returning to service, Aires officials said.
Yet despite the upsurge in violence few refugees have fled across the border with Ecuador, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Quito said Tuesday.
The UNHCR is nevertheless “stepping up its preparedness in the border areas of the countries neighboring Colombia,” spokesman Kris Janowski said from the group’s headquarters in Geneva.
“We really don’t know which way things are going to go, but we’re getting ready just in case,” Janowski said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that US officials are consulting with the Pastrana government, trying to find ways to be “helpful” in Colombia’s fight against the rebels.
“We’re mindful of the legal constraints that are imposed on us,” Fleischer said. “Any actions we take will be in accordance with those constraints.”
Washington considers the FARC a terrorist group, along with the smaller Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) and right-wing paramilitaries in the Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC).
LOAD-DATE: February 26, 2002