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Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 05:10 GMT
Colombian army storms rebel zone
Sergio Delgado cries over the dead body of his wife
A number of civilians were killed in the air strikes
Colombian soldiers have begun retaking a huge rebel safe haven in the south of the country.

Thousands of troops met little resistance as they advanced into the area from the east and west, backed by hundreds of air strikes, and took control of the main rebel town, San Vicente del Caguan.

Colombian soldier
The troops have been moving in on foot
Local residents said three civilians - including a child - had been killed in the aerial bombardment of the town. Three armed forces personnel were wounded when their helicopter came under fire.

For three years, left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have controlled the area, which is the size of Switzerland, after being given it as a sweetener in peace negotiations.

But the talks were fruitless and the FARC was ordered out of its safe haven by President Andres Pastrana, after he declared the peace process dead.

Click here for a map of the former FARC safe haven

The BBC's Peter Greste in Bogota says the retaking of the zone appears to have caught the rebels entirely by surprise.

Government forces are in such a position of control that President Pastrana will visit San Vicente on Saturday.

On Friday government troops captured a former army base and moved on towards five towns inside the former rebel stronghold.

President Andres Pastrana
Pastrana ordered the troops to take the enclave
The head of the armed forces, General Fernando Tapias, said although rebel leaders had left the area many fighters were disguising themselves and trying to mingle with civilians.

More than 100,000 people live in the area and it is feared that as fighting continues they could be caught in the cross-fire or forced to flee.

Neighbouring countries are braced for a possible refugee influx.

Meanwhile, town mayors in the zone have declared dusk-to-dawn curfews, and some are demanding that the government place international observers in the area to prevent right-wing paramilitary forces from killing suspected rebel collaborators.

"We're not guerrillas. We only had to live next to them," said the mayor of Mesetas, Maria Oliva Torres.

Call for calm

The authorities have been urging the local people not to panic. Army commander General Jorge Enrique Mora assured them "the country knows perfectly well that you have had to live under this regime of terror".

The huge enclave was given to the rebels when peace talks began more than three years ago.

But on Wednesday Mr Pastrana said he was putting "an end to the demilitarised zone" after a senator, Jorge Gechem Turbay, was kidnapped.

His plane was flown to a rural area close to territory held by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The rebels deny any involvement in the abduction.

A FARC statement blamed the collapse of the peace talks on the president and what it called Colombia's "oligarchy".

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See also:

15 Feb 02 | Americas
Timeline: Colombia
22 Feb 02 | Media reports
Colombia's press warns of grim times
30 Dec 00 | Americas
Colombia peace mediator killed
19 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombia thwarts rebel dam attack
21 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombian army moves against rebels
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
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