Militares colombianos creen bajo control el sur del país

By DAN MOLINSKI, Associated Press Writer
TORIBIO, Colombia – Colombia’s top military leaders on Sunday toured this mountainous region in southwest Colombia to oversee government forces struggling to retake control of the area from Marxist rebels.
AP Photo
«The situation is being brought under control,» Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, the armed forces commander, insisted after flying into the village of Palo, close to the front lines. «Naturally, these bandits have sown mine fields and there are some snipers, so we still have to move carefully,» he told RCN television.
But further down the valley in rebel-controlled Tacueyo, Ricardo, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the rebels had forced an armored military column to retreat during clashes several miles outside the village in the past 24 hours.
«They were trying to make it up the hill, but we are holding our ground,» said Ricardo, who refused to give his surname. He reported five wounded among the FARC’s ranks.
The Army’s 3rd Brigade, however, said six rebels had been killed and another 17 captured in the latest fighting near Tacueyo, some 190 miles southwest of Bogota. The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
The clashes came amid a rebel offensive that started April 14 with the bombardment of nearby Toribio and quickly spread along at least a 14-mile front. It was the first time in years that the FARC has fought pitched battles against government forces, instead of simply carrying out hit-and-run attacks.
In Tacueyo itself, life continued as normal Sunday. A couple of camouflage-clad female FARC guerrillas, some wearing makeup, strolled through the market shopping for underwear.
But in Toribio — where at least 19 homes and stores were destroyed in the initial FARC attack — the mayor feared that Ospina’s arrival at the front signaled a wider government offensive that could lay ruin to his village.
Arquimedes Vitonas said he hoped the heavily armored vehicles the military was trying to bring up never reach his town, where they would likely draw heavy rebel fire.
The clashes that have occurred along the western face of the Central Cordillera of the Andes Mountains represent the rebels’ boldest challenge since Uribe was elected three years ago on pledges he would crush the 40-year-old insurgency.
The rebels said the attack was a message to the government that it will not accept the presence of police or military forces in town centers. Two years ago, a large police bunker was built near Toribio’s main square.
Colombia’s army chief, Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, who toured the zone with Ospina on Sunday, vowed to restore state authority. «We are ready … to flush them (the FARC) out of here,» he said.
Since the start of the rebel offensive, the military has reported a total of five soldiers and three police officers killed. The rebels have denied any deaths in their ranks.
The FARC, created 40 years ago with the aim of overthrowing the government and bringing greater justice and opportunity to the poor, has instead been widely condemned because of its involvement in the drug trade and extortion rackets, and its reliance on frequent kidnappings.
More than 3,000 people are killed each year in the conflict

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