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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 12:56 GMT
The Colombian army's inflatable mascot
Inflatable soldier with two members of the army
The inflatable soldier makes his debut
Colombia's national army has a new weapon in its war against the rebels - a large inflatable soldier.

The grinning figure, dressed in army camouflage uniform, is part of a campaign to encourage locals to provide information on rebel activities in their area.

The new recruit made his first publicised appearance at an army checkpoint on the main road from Bogota.

It is an area of land that the army has just recently taken from the FARC, Colombia's main left-wing guerrilla group.

The inflatable soldier, which is three metres (10 feet) tall and has a real person inside, spent the visit waddling around on the roadside, waving and hugging people indiscriminately.

The dummy meets a local
The army hopes their mascot will appeal to the local people
It was accompanied by a more regular member of the armed forces, Sergeant Diaz, who handed out leaflets with the number of a 24-hour phone line that people could ring with details of rebel insurgencies.

"Remember your army loves you," said Sergeant Diaz. "This is to make you join in by denouncing these bandits who are killing this country."

His inflatable companion just carried on smiling.

Living with violence

Colombia is a country riven with internal fighting, and the army has to contend with left-wing groups such as the FARC and with far-right paramilitaries.

The violence has killed at least 35,000 people over the last decade and forced two million Colombians to flee the country.

Understandably, many ordinary citizens are wary of anyone carrying a gun.

After the collapse of peace talks with the FARC last week, the army needs the support of local people, and officials hope that the inflatable mascot will help.

See also:

27 Feb 02 | Americas
Bush denies Colombia military aid
22 Feb 02 | Media reports
Colombia's press warns of grim times
21 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombian army moves against rebels
15 Feb 02 | Americas
Timeline: Colombia
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