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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 04:23 GMT 05:23 UK

World: Americas

'Hundreds' dead in Colombia

Government troops and relatives mourn dead comrades

Fierce clashes in Colombia's southern savannahs appear to be dying down, after four days which the government branded "the biggest and most demented guerrilla offensive" in 40 years.

The army says that around 300 rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, have been killed in the fighting.

At least 59 government soldiers and police have been killed.

Government troops displayed the bodies of 30 guerrillas allegedly killed in Puerto Lleras, 160km south-east of the capital, Bogota, about a third of whom were women.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire continued late into Monday.

US appeal

The United States called on the FARC to halt their attacks on the security forces and engage in peace negotiations.

A State Department spokesperson expressed outrage over the latest rebel offensive.

Government officials in Bogota say the rebel onslaught is a show of strength designed to boost their bargaining position in the latest round of peace talks, now due to begin on 20 July.

[ image: President Pastrana: Most Colombians think he has given too much away]
President Pastrana: Most Colombians think he has given too much away
The negotiations - aimed at ending a conflict that has run for four decades and killed 35,000 people in the past 10 years alone - were due to start this week but were postponed because of "logistical problems".

There is little optimism that the talks will achieve any real progress, but some observers believe that the FARC is now in a stronger position.

"They've managed to show force, to intimidate the establishment, and without a doubt made it possible to push harder at the negotiating table," said former national security adviser Alfredo Rangel.

The FARC is demanding sweeping reforms to attack poverty, redistribute land and clean up political corruption.


The BBC's James Reynolds in Bogota: Increased secuirty
The Colombian Government has declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew across more than 30% of the country, including the outskirts of Bogota, in an effort to contain the situation.

Defence Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez has meanwhile admitted that the government knew that a huge "safe haven" it granted the rebels last year was being used as a training ground for further attacks.

During the offensive, the FARC rebels - in alliance with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) - have bombed banks, blown up bridges and energy installations, blocked roads and attacked police barracks.

Children killed

Reports said the heaviest of Sunday's fighting took place in Puerto Lleras where guerrillas attacked with armour-plated trucks.

[ image: Red Cross workers carefully move a dead soldier in case the body is mined]
Red Cross workers carefully move a dead soldier in case the body is mined
In Caqueta state, two children died when a rebel bomb destroyed their house adjoining the police station in Valparaiso, police said.

And two police were killed when rebels launched homemade bombs at a barracks and a bank in Campamento, in the state of Antioquia.

A third officer was killed in a FARC drive-by shooting near Bogota.

Other towns targeted in the fighting include Puerto Rico and Doncello in the south and Hato Corozal, in the northeastern Casanare province.

A funeral was held on Sunday for soldiers killed in the action that sparked the weekend's bloodshed - a raid on a camp in mountains south of Bogota.

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