- IN THE ANDES MOUNTAINS, Colombia
(Reuters) - Colombian Marxist guerrillas bombed power lines and clashed
with the army on Tuesday as a senior rebel called the collapse of peace
talks a disaster and warned that thousands will die in the coming "total
- At a secret mountain camp in southern Colombia, rebel
commander Pablo Catatumbo blamed Colombia's upper classes and the United
States for President Andres Pastrana's decision to halt three years of
peace talks last week with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia --
known in Spanish as FARC.
- "I think this is an historic mistake. Not only by
President Pastrana, but also by the Colombian ruling classes, the establishment,
who have pushed Colombia into total war," FARC rebel commander Pablo
Catatumbo told Reuters in an interview.
- Pastrana abandoned the tortuous peace talks after the
FARC hijacked a commercial plane and kidnapped a senator aboard. The negotiations
had done little to stem the bloodshed in a 38-year-old war which pits leftist
rebels including the FARC against the Colombian army and far-right paramilitary
outlaws and has claimed about 40,000 lives in the last decade.
- "We have to sit down and talk again. The terrible
thing is that there are going to be 5,000 or 10,000 deaths. Whether they
be guerrillas, police, soldiers or civilians, it's terrible for Colombia.
We don't want that," added Catatumbo, dressed in camouflage and surrounded
by armed guerrillas.
- Since Monday, FARC rebels have killed eight soldiers
and police, as well as a young boy, in firefights and bombings in three
southern Colombian provinces. The attacks all occurred in and around the
thinly populated region of jungle and cattle pasture the size of Switzerland
that Pastrana gave the FARC as a safe haven for peace talks in late 1998.
- Backed by U.S.-built Black Hawk helicopters, army troops
pushed back into the area last week and bombed rebel camps after Pastrana
declared the talks dead on Wednesday, calling the FARC drug-trafficking
"terrorists" who had never ceased the violent struggle outside
- BUSH AIDES DISCUSS COLOMBIA
- Catatumbo said Washington shared the blame for the collapse
of peace talks. "The United States has always been the main obstacle
for obtaining peace in Colombia. Until the necessary consensus is reached
for committing the United States to the idea that Colombia needs reforms,
it's going to be very difficult to get peace," he said.
- The United States has given Colombia over $1 billion
in mainly military aid for anti-drugs efforts and has said it hopes to
give $98 million more to defend a key oil pipeline.
- Top aides to President Bush on Tuesday discussed how
they could do more to help Colombia given constraints on using U.S. military
aid for anything other than the fight against drugs. No decisions were
- But officials said Washington's designation of the FARC
as a terrorist group may open the door to more aid and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld did not rule out sending in troops.
- The FARC has said it is prepared to talk to a future
government, but Alvaro Uribe, who has a massive lead ahead of May 26 presidential
elections, is a bitter enemy of the peasant army. The rebels want social
reforms and land redistribution in a country marked by a huge divide between
rich and poor.
- Striking back after the government incursion, the rebels
bombed power pylons across southern Colombia, leaving 45 small towns without
electricity and many without running water.
- But Catatumbo, a commander of the 17,000-strong rebel
force in Valle del Cauca province -- outside the former rebel-held "demilitarized
zone" -- said the FARC wanted peace.
- "We're looking at about 5,000 deaths, because there
are very important sections of the establishment here who don't want peace.
They're making money out of war, including the military," he said.
- Over the weekend, the guerrillas grabbed a minor presidential
candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, after she ignored military advice not to
venture into the former rebel zone. She has now been added to the list
of more than 800 people being held hostage by the FARC, mainly for ransom.
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