18 February 2003
— By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - At least 29 Marxist rebels and far-right militia members have been killed in a clash in a lawless area of Colombia near where crack U.S. soldiers are training local troops, officials said on Tuesday.
The fighting over the weekend in the eastern, oil-rich province of Arauca was a blow to President Alvaro Uribe, who has turned Arauca into a showcase of his security policies to crack down on violence after four decades of war.
Gen. Eduardo Morales, a regional army commander, said the battles took place near Tame, a run-down village surrounded by jungle and savanna disputed by several illegal armed groups.
The 70 U.S. Special Forces, part of Washington's expanding military assistance to the war-torn country, are training a Colombian brigade to protect the country's second-largest oil pipeline. The Cano Limon pipeline serves an oil field operated by the U.S. firm Occidental Petroleum .
Although the government has declared the region a "war zone" and handed special powers to the military to allow mass roundups of suspects, violence has not diminished in Arauca, where four car bombs killed 12 people last month.
The bullet-riddled body of a town hall official from another violent village, Arauquita, was found Tuesday, police said. He had been kidnapped by unidentified gunmen on Monday.
Uribe, a tough-talking lawyer and close ally of the United States, took office in August pledging to crack down on the violence. Thousands of Colombians are killed every year in clashes between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary outlaws and the U.S.-backed military.
MILITIA GROUP REJECTS TALKS
In another setback for Uribe's hopes for peace, a dissident paramilitary commander told Reuters his fighters were pulling out of peace contacts with the government and said they would ignore a cease-fire.
Uribe has named a group of officials to meet with commanders of the 10,000-strong United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and explore the possibility of holding peace talks.
But the contacts have been dogged by divisions among the militia blocks, raising doubts about their viability.
"The rebels give us no other option than taking up arms. The state can not provide security in the regions we are defending," the commander of the dissident 2,000-strong Elmer Cardenas block, who is known as "El Aleman" (The German), told Reuters in a recent interview in the jungle.
As he spoke, a group of about a dozen youngsters -- their faces smeared with mud -- trained in a militia training ground with screams of "Death to the rebels."
The decision by Elmer Cardenas, which controls a key weapons-for-drugs smuggling corridor near the Panamanian border, follows one by the smaller, paramilitary "Metro Bloc" to reject the cease-fire and the talks.
The paramilitaries, a vigilante army created in the 1980s by wealthy ranchers, are the fastest growing illegal armed group in Colombia and are blamed for some of the worst human rights violations.
Rights groups say paramilitaries have links to hard-line sectors of the army, and several senior officers face criminal investigations for cooperation with the "paras."
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