Colombian Rebel Says Thousands
Will Die In Total War

By William Parra

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 war."
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 their territory.
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 reached.
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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