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Colombia Begins Ground Action to Retake Rebel Zone
JUAN FORERO . NY Times . 22 february 2002

Colombian troops prepared to go inside jungles today that for three years were controlled by Marxist rebels.

BOGOTÀ, Colombia, Feb. 22 — Helicopters ferried the first wave of thousands of government troops this morning inside a swath of southern jungles that for three years was controlled by Marxist rebels, the first major ground action in an effort to retake the zone after President Andres Pastrana broke off peace talks with the rebels on Wednesday night.

Dozens of soldiers, members of an elite unit, retook a military base just outside the town of San Vicente del Caguan, a town about 170 miles south of Bogota. The town had been in the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since Mr. Pastrana ceded a Switzerland-sized region in 1998 to the rebels as a haven during peace talks.

Light machine gun fire hit three helicopters, injuring at least three soldiers, high military officials at Defense Ministry said this morning. Gen. Fernando Tapias, chief of the armed forces, said that troops were guarding against anti-personnel mines and rebel ambushes.

Speaking to reporters this morning, General Tapias said that the rebels were trying to dynamite roads to slow the advance of troops who were expected to soon enter the region in heavily armed convoys.

Meanwhile, across the country, the rebels were blamed for the bombings of power pylons and communication towers. Fears had also spread beyond Colombia about the possible spillover of the violence, particularly in Ecuador, whose northern border is close to the former rebel enclave.

Today, Ecuador's president, Gustavo Noboa, declared a state of emergency in a jungle province in the north, which allows the central government to quickly channel funds in case of a crisis. In the past, violence in Colombia™s southern province of Putumayo has prompted refugees to cross over into Ecuador.

The United States, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Colombia for its war on drugs, supported Mr. Pastrana's decision.

"We understand the decision he made, we support him," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters today as he returned aboard Air Force One from Asia with President George W. Bush.

Mr. Powell said that Pastrana had showed "enormous patience over a long period of time." Noting that Colombia's government has "been rebuffed" by the rebels, Mr. Powell said that Mr. Pastrana "had a responsibility to the people of Colombia" to end talks.

In Washington, the Bush administration said today that it would increase intelligence sharing with Colombia and would expedite delivery of spare parts for military equipment to help Mr. Pastrana's government with its fight against the Marxists guerrillas.

In the last year, the United States has spent more than $1 billion in Colombia, but most of it went toward the fight against drug-trafficking and the rebels who profit from and protect the trade.

The Bush administration has requested Congressional approval of $98 million to pay for training and helicopters for Colombian troops to guard an oil pipeline, a sharp departure from past policy. Increasingly, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as Pentagon policy-makers, are also seeking Congressional approval so American equipment can be used for counterinsurgency operations.

Today's offensive in Colombia came after this country's air force spent much of Thursday morning bombing rebel camps, clandestine airstrips, storage facilities and cocaine-processing laboratories. Dozens of sorties were flown, hitting at least 13 targets multiple times, military officials said.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the bombardment killed a small boy and an adult in one hamlet. General Hector Velasco, the air force chief, said that warplanes were careful to go just after "military targets and narco-trafficking network targets." But he acknowledged that the bombing could not be precise in all circumstances.

"Unfortunately accidents can happen," he told reporters today, noting that more than 100 sorties had been conducted.

The United Nations has asked for access to the zone to determine how the civilian population has been affected, one Western diplomat said, but the Colombian government has denied the request.

"We really don't understand why," said the diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous. "And we think it's extremely important that the international community and the United Nations be given access to confirm or deny various reports."

James LeMoyne, the United Nations special envoy to Colombia, said that the world body has heard "reports of civilian casualties, civilian deaths, wounded people who cannot be attended in outlying areas and hundreds, maybe thousands of people, being displaced."

Mr. LeMoyne said the United Nations groups are also concerned that some residents of the zone will be targeted by right-wing paramilitary units, organizations that human rights groups contend receive assistance from Colombia™s army. The paramilitaries often kill shopkeepers, local officials and others they accuse of having collaborated with rebels.

"The people of the zone were not consulted on the creation of the zone," he said, "but they participated in it and it's unfair that they now be punished for a decision that was not their own."

The bombing began just hours after Mr. Pastrana, in an emotional nationwide address on Wednesday, angrily broke off talks while accusing rebels of hijacking a domestic airliner in order to kidnap a senior senator who was on board. Accusing the rebels of hypocrisy, Mr. Pastrana said the group would negotiate inside the rebel zone while carrying out bombings, kidnappings and other acts of violence across the nation.

The rebels today issued a statement saying that they would still be willing to negotiate, but only with the next government. Presidential elections are scheduled for May, but Mr. Pastrana is constitutionally barred from re-election.