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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 14:53 GMT
Colombia waits as rebels move out
Sculptors works on giant FARC relief near San Vicente at the weekend
FARC has stamped its image on the haven
Colombian leftist rebels are pulling out of their safe haven in the south of the country, hours before a withdrawal deadline set by President Andres Pastrana.

Government troops are preparing for military action to take back the zone and pursue the rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into the jungle, following the breakdown of peace talks.

Safe haven
Created in November 1998
Size of Switzerland
Population at least 100,000
Has its own FARC-run courts and radio station

But residents in the zone say they are terrified of reprisals by right-wing paramilitaries who could fill the initial vacuum left by the retreating rebels.

UN envoy James LeMoyne, who has been trying to reach a deal with the FARC to revive the talks, is staying in the zone to make sure the transition is peaceful.

He said there was no "magic solution" although he had "found will for peace on both sides".

"It is possible that we will not obtain what we want - which is a negotiated solution," he said.

Proposal rejected

The army is moving a 12,000-strong contingent backed by helicopter gunships to the edge of the zone, as the FARC dismantle their checkpoints and withdraw from the zone's five main towns.

They face an estimated 16,500 FARC rebels, armed mainly with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Click here for a map of the FARC's safe haven

The FARC agreed to leave by 0230 GMT on Tuesday after Mr Pastrana rejected their draft proposal for salvaging peace talks on Saturday night, giving them 48 hours to withdraw.

Colombian government soldiers
The US-backed Colombian army easily outguns FARC

A senior FARC commander, Simon Trinidad, said it would be Mr Pastrana's responsibility to guarantee the safety of about 100,000 people who live in the safe haven.

Human rights groups say many residents fear that they will be targeted as alleged collaborators.

Red Cross officials reportedly plan to accompany 14 busloads of people out of the region's main town, San Vicente del Caguan, on Monday.


Mr Pastrana had previously set a deadline of 0230 GMT on Sunday for the rebels to return to the negotiating table unconditionally.

But the president said the ideas that emerged after the rebels' talks with Mr LeMoyne were insufficient, and did not address the key issues - such as ending FARC attacks and kidnappings.

Peace timeline
July 1998: Mr Pastrana meets FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to launch peace talks
November 1998: FARC safe haven created
June 2001: FARC frees 242 prisoners
August 2001: capture of suspected IRA team provokes crackdown on haven
January 2002: Pastrana issues ultimatum for FARC to resume talks or leave haven - FARC begins withdrawal

BBC Bogota correspondent Jeremy McDermott says that, after three years of stumbling dialogue and record levels of violence, it seems the Colombian peace process is now over.

It is the public perception that throughout that time the FARC has talked peace but made war, he says.

One analyst, Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington, predicts ferocious military action.

"The next six months are probably going to be the bloodiest we've seen," he said.

The Colombian conflict already claims an average of about 3,500 lives every year.

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The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Government troops mass along the border of the demilitarised zone"
See also:

13 Jan 02 | Media reports
FARC communique: 'Warmongers win'
12 Jan 02 | Media reports
Peace pessimism in Colombian press
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