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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 19:17 GMT
UN fears Colombian refugee exodus
FARC rebel
FARC rebels are holding hundreds of hostages
The United Nations refugee agency is preparing for a possible exodus of Colombians fleeing violence between the security forces and left-wing rebels.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working with authorities and aid agencies in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela in case an escalation in the internal conflict in Colombia causes a regional humanitarian crisis.

There are fears that large numbers of Colombians may be forced to leave their homes following the collapse of peace talks last week.

When the talks were broken off, the armed forces were ordered to take control of a former rebel safe haven in southern Colombia - a task they say will take up to six months to complete.

They are advancing slowly through the rebel stronghold - an area the size of Switzerland ceded to them three years ago - to avoid ambushes and minefields.

Politician kidnapped

The rebels were accused of "kidnapping democracy" after they abducted a presidential candidate on Saturday.

Colombian soldier
Troops are moving into the rebel's former haven

Click here for a map of the former FARC safe haven

Colombian President Andres Pastrana denounced the kidnapping of 40-year-old politician Ingrid Betancourt, saying: "These violent people have attacked democracy again".

The United States has added its voice to international condemnation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and called for Mrs Betancourt's immediate release.

Kidnapping is a favoured tactic of the guerrillas, who are believed to be holding about 800 people hostage.

The US has backed Mr Pastrana's decision to end peace talks with the guerrillas, while the European Union and the United Nations have also condemned the rebels' actions.

Mr Pastrana has said there will be no further peace talks until the rebels stop using terror tactics.

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The BBC's Nick Hawton
"Any campaign will be long and bloody"
See also:

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