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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
FARC: Rebels without a cause?
Members of FARC
Founded in 1964, FARC now control 40% of the country

Europe seems set to add Colombia's Marxist guerrillas its list of terrorist organisations. Yet the "Old World" has in the past had sympathy for this Andean nation's revolutionaries, and must now decide whether they are "freedom fighters" or "international terrorists".

Colombian President, Andres Pastrana
President Pastrana has attempted to crack down on FARC
The leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda has been fighting the state for more than 50 of his 71 years.

He founded the FARC in 1964 and since then has built up his guerrilla army from a handful of cousins and friends, into a fearsome force of some 18,000 fighters that today control almost 40% of the country.

The FARC had much to fight for when they were formed. The political system was restricted to the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties and these were controlled by the country's rich, political elite.

Colombia's poor

Most of the land was in the hands of the privileged few and the majority of the population lived in poverty.

Well some things have not changed. The gap between rich and poor in Colombia is still among the widest in the world and more than half of the population live in poverty.

But the Colombian and the US Government say the guerrillas have lost their ideology and become nothing more than terrorists and drugs traffickers.

That the guerrillas are involved in drugs is beyond question. It is their main earner, followed by kidnapping and extortion.

Bring them all down: bridges, pylons and the dam, make urban attacks, so that the oligarchy feels the war

Henry Castellanos, Commander of the FARC 53rd Front
That they have committed terrorist acts is certain. Earlier this month whilst battling their hated enemies - the right wing paramilitaries - they dropped a bomb on the church of BojayŠ in the western province of Choců.

Terrified townsfolk had taken shelter from the combat in the building. A total of 119 civilians in the church were killed - almost half of them children.

Change of tactics

Since the three-year peace process with the FARC broke down in February, the guerrillas have changed tactics.

Before, they would concentrate forces and attack security force bases.

Civilian were often killed in the crossfire, but the military was always the target. That seems to have changed.

In a radio exchange intercepted by the military, Comandante 'Romana' (alias of Henry Castellanos, the feared commander of the powerful FARC 53rd Front) was heard to say: "Bring them all down - bridges, pylons and the dam. Make urban attacks so that the oligarchy feels the war."

The guerrillas want to punish the government for ending the peace process and hurt the political elite.

That means hitting the cities, which has resulted in a move towards "terrorist" tactics, not purely at the security forces, but against the general urban population.

The FARC have blown up some 200 electricity pylons across the country so far this year, attacked water reservoirs that feed BogotŠ's seven million inhabitants, and set off bombs in cities.

IRA link

The FARC also seem to have links with international militant organisations.

Three Irish republicans are in a Colombian prison awaiting trial on charges of training the FARC in explosives and urban terrorism.

Members of FARC at a training camp
In national surveys FARC never poll more than 5% of public support
Military intelligence insist that the Basque separatist group ETA has also been in Colombia along with suspicious Cubans and Iranians, which prompted a US Congressional report to state: "Colombia is a potential breeding ground for international terror equalled perhaps only by Afghanistan."

But perhaps most telling in the debate on whether the FARC are freedom fighters or terrorists is the issue of public support.

There can be little doubt that the guerrillas have lost touch with the people they claim to represent.

In national surveys the FARC never poll more than 5% of public support, and that for all the imperfections in its political system, Colombia is a democracy.

After almost 40 years, it appears the FARC have become rebels without a cause.

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