Colombian troops are planning to evict the rebel group Farc from its safe havens after a breakdown in the sporadic peace process.
Residents of the strongholds of Farc – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – are bracing for battles as troops try to retake five main townships today.
The 17,000 Marxist rebels, who comprise the largest and oldest guerrilla group in South America, are already slipping into the surrounding jungle. The American-backed army is on maximum alert. More than a dozen tanks and 10 troop trucks rumbled through the capital yesterday morning, moving soldiers into position.
The President, Andres Pastrana, himself a former kidnap victim, had vowed to end 38 years of bloody civil war at the negotiating table. To kick-start peace talks, he ceded a swath of land the size of Switzerland to the guerrillas as a "peace laboratory" three years ago. The controversial gesture meant stability for the 100,000 civilians in the disputed southern zone of cattle towns, but the unsupervised rebels soon used their enclave to hide hostages, recruit and train guerrillas, cache weapons and traffic in cocaine and heroin.
Even during the so-called peace process, Farc rebels outside the zone continued to kidnap civilians, and clashed with the military, right-wing death squads and other leftists from the National Liberation Army.
After Camillo Gomez, the government peace envoy, said Farc had refused to consider a ceasefire, instead complaining about military patrols on their zone's perimeter and restricted access to foreigners, Mr Pastrana changed tack and put the rebels on 48-hours notice to leave the zone.
The deadline to renew the Farc's autonomous zone had been 20 January. The Farc spokesman, Raul Reyes, said the envoy had lied and that rebels did not curtail the talks.
Mr Pastrana said: "The Farc keeps placing obstacles in front of the peace process, making it impossible for us to advance." He urged calm. "We can't fall into unnecessary panic," he warned during a national broadcast. "We won't enter into a terrible, merciless war." But at the same time, he reminded the rebels that the army had never been stronger.
Washington has provided Colombia with special-forces training and helicopters to fight drug traffickers, and has labelled the Farc as narco-terrorists because they tax drug gangs to raise funds. The rebels say the American anti-drug efforts disguise foreign intervention in their insurgency, which claims nearly 3,500 lives each year.
Earlier this week, gunmen killed the mayor of Puerto Rico, a violent town just outside the Farc's demilitarised zone. Police said John William Lozano, a 34-year-old Liberal Party member, was the first Colombian mayor to be assassinated this year. Mr Lozano became mayor last August, after the previous mayor, Jose Lizardo Rojas, was killed. Six mayors were murdered last year and 10 were kidnapped, usually by the rebels. The conflict has claimed 40,000 lives in a decade.Reuse content