War with Colombian rebels claims more than 100 lives

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The Independent Online
TRES ESQUINAS (Reuters) - Colombia's armed forces have admitted that more than than 100 soldiers and rebels may have died in heavy fighting earlier this week.

Rebel forces from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) claim they decimated a crack counterinsurgency unit in battles in the area over the past four days.

General Fernando Tapias, the army's second-in-command, said that "more than 100 men", including soldiers and rebels, may have died in the fighting. A senior army source said that 80 soldiers of the Third Mobile Brigade had been killed while 30 had been injured and another 43 taken prisoner.

President Ernesto Samper was due to fly to the Tres Esquinas base, about a half-hour's flight from the battle-zone, to review operations on Friday. More than 1,000 troops are said to be combing the dense jungle for a 400- strong Farc force.

In a radio conversation with the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday night, Joaquin Gomez, the Soviet-educated commander of the Farc's elite Southern Bloc division said 70 soldiers had been killed. Security forces have so far rejected rebel calls to send in Red Cross officials while fighting continues. If the army toll is as high as reported, it would be its worst defeat in more than three decades of guerrilla war. Observers believe the rebels may be battling for positions in advance of possible peace talks with the next government, due to take office in August.

The previous worst rebel attack was in April 1996 when the Farc ambushed an army patrol along an oil pipeline in south-west Narino province, killing 31 troops. More than 35,000 civilians have died in the civil unrest in the past decade.