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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 11:16 GMT
Analysis: Colombians fear more violence
Vigil for abducted Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt
Several senior politicians have been abducted or killed
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By Ruth Morris in Bogota
line

President Andres Pastrana may have won a nation's thanks by breaking off peace talks with Marxist rebels, but it remains to be seen whether the Colombian armed forces can make military gains against the guerrillas.

President Pastrana terminated negotiations with his country's most powerful guerrilla group - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombians (FARC) - on the 20 February, after the rebels hijacked a commercial airliner and kidnapped a prominent senator.

President Andres Pastrana
Pastrana's decision was wildly popular
The three-year peace process had achieved little, and the president's decision was a popular one.

However, government forces have since failed to contain a wave of retaliatory FARC attacks on power lines and bridges, or to establish a stronghold in a former rebel safe haven to the south.

Now, with congressional elections around the corner, analysts warn that the rebels are likely to intensify their sabotage campaign, targeting politicians, military installations and urban centres.

Token military presence

"The army is poor," says military analyst Alfredo Rangel.

Even though the United States has channelled $670m into Colombia's military machine over the last two years, Mr Rangel says the army "could show weaknesses that will be difficult for the public to accept".


Colombians are expecting an escalation in political violence

Much of the US aid went to buy powerful Black Hawk helicopters and special forces training for elite Colombian troops, but US legislators stipulated the assistance was strictly for anti-narcotics operations.

President Pastrana has asked Washington to loosen this restriction to bolster his fight against the FARC, but to no avail.

The 17,000-strong FARC is Latin America's oldest rebel army, and relies on drug profits and extortion to survive.

The most recent example of the FARC's staying power came in late February when President Pastrana ordered government troops to re-capture a southern sanctuary he had ceded to the rebels in 1998.

Click here to see a map of the former FARC safe haven

The army was only able to establish a token presence in dusty town centres - military authorities conceded they will need months, perhaps years, to fully control the vast territory.

In a political cartoon published in the leading El Tiempo daily, FARC commander Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda smiles at the delay and signals his fighters to unload a stationwagon full of suitcases inside the former peace zone, saying: "The government has given us more time."

Escalation

FARC attacks "cannot be eliminated totally" according to the head of the armed forces, General Fernando Tapias, "but it can be reduced to where it doesn't interfere with normal levels of national development".

Colombian anti-narcotics police officer in a poppy field
US military backing is restricted to fighting the drugs trade
Meanwhile, rebel infrastructure attacks are on the rise.

In the past, Colombia's 38-year civil conflict has been fought largely over drug crops and gun-running corridors.

But now the rebels want to bring the violence right to residents' doorsteps, observers say, with strikes on city centres and commercial hubs.

Colombians are also expecting an escalation in political violence.

With congressional elections slated for 10 March, lawmakers say campaigning has become a high-stakes endeavour.

Fear in the city

Candidates seeking votes in the countryside run the risk of being kidnapped by rebel bands, and some have taken to mailing video-taped speeches to supporters instead.


There's a lot of fear... a lot of people don't go outside Bogota anymore

Jorge Leon,
businessman

The rebels are already holding five lawmakers, along with a presidential candidate. The body of another senator was found on Saturday with gunshot wounds - officials believe she was killed by the FARC.

The FARC say they will only release their high-profile prisoners in a swap for jailed rebel commanders.

"There's a lot of fear. A lot of people don't go outside Bogota anymore," says Jorge Leon, a city-based businessman.

After several of his friends were held for ransom by the guerrillas, Leon now avoids driving on country roads after dark and rarely ventures far outside the capital city.

Other Bogota residents have taken to holding candle-light vigils to protest against recent rebel attacks on a nearby water supply station.

But Leon is sceptical that the FARC will take notice.

"Psychologically, the protests are important. But in a practical sense, the guerrilla must be laughing their heads off," he says.



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See also:

04 Mar 02 | Americas
Colombian senator murdered
02 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Colombia's war without end
26 Feb 02 | Americas
Outrage at Colombian kidnap
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