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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 23:36 GMT
Colombia seeks to widen drugs war
Police search motorcyclist
A massive security operation is under way
Colombia President Andres Pastrana has appealed for the United States to allow its anti-drugs aid to be used directly against insurgents who, he said, were committing terrorist acts against the people.

The US Congress has imposed rules which currently restrict use of the aid to attacks against the cocaine and heroin-producing operations themselves.

If the guerrillas think they can overthrow us with bombs and bullets, we show them the exact opposite - that what we want is to strengthen our democracy

President Pastrana
The main left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and their right-wing paramilitary opponents are said to receive significant funding from drugs operations.

Mr Pastrana also called for a large turnout in Sunday's congressional elections, as a protest against a sharp upsurge of violence by the groups.

Mr Pastrana was speaking as electoral officials warned that as many as half of all voters might abstain out of fear or apathy.

In some areas, voters are coming under pressure from FARC rebels to boycott the election.

In others, paramilitaries from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) have instructed people to pick the candidate of their choosing.

More than 100,000 police and soldiers are being deployed at polling stations in one of the largest ever security operations of its kind.

Bombing campaign

Clashes between the army and the rebels have increased since the collapse of peace talks last month.

Rebels are reported to have begun bombing bridges, reservoirs and communication towers.

Confiscated weapons from guerrilla group in Medellin
Violence from rebel groups is growing
"We hope we can use all of this military equipment to really go after these groups that today are doing all these terrorist acts against the Colombian people," Mr Pastrana said.

"If the guerrillas think they can overthrow us with bombs and bullets and by terrorising Colombians, we show them the exact opposite - that what we want is to strengthen our democracy," he added.

But a poll in January suggested that the Colombian Congress had the worst reputation of any institution in Colombia apart from the FARC.

Cocaine figures

The US issued a report on Thursday which said that the area in Colombia used for coca crops grew by almost 25% last year despite the anti-drugs programme.

Coca crops in Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine and the main supplier of the drug in the US, grew to almost 170,000 hectares last year, according to the US estimates.

The White House said the new figures were a source of concern.

The Colombian authorities disputed the figures, saying they managed to reduce the area cultivated with coca to just under 145,000 hectares in 2001, an 11% drop compared with the previous year.

See also:

08 Mar 02 | Americas
Colombia drugs surge troubles US
25 Jul 01 | Americas
US backs Colombia drugs fight
02 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Colombia's war without end
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