Elite Colombian troops pour into Farc stronghold

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The Independent US

Ten American-supplied Black Hawk helicopters dropped 200 heavily-armed élite Colombian paratroopers into the capital of a former rebel stronghold yesterday as the government poured in ground troops to recapture the zone.

Ten American-supplied Black Hawk helicopters dropped 200 heavily-armed élite Colombian paratroopers into the capital of a former rebel stronghold yesterday as the government poured in ground troops to recapture the zone.

Although one helicopter was reportedly strafed by machine-gun fire, the soldiers met little resistance from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a day after President Pastrana launched a bombing campaign against the haven ceded to the guerrillas in 1998 as a peace gesture.

The president abruptly abandoned his three-year quest for a ceasefire mid-week after Farc's hijack of a civilian airliner to kidnap a senator on board. Some 13,000 ground troops are set to retake the lawless southern zone, roughly twice the size of Wales, which has been used as a rebel training ground, weapons cache, coca plantation and hostage hideout. One thousand soldiers were deploying east of the main town of San Vicente del Caguan yesterday.

Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, Farc's septuagenarian commander-in-chief, appears to have slipped into the jungle with his rebels, via a network of trenches. Residents of the five principal towns in the region, under dawn-to-dusk curfew and suffering power blackouts after rebels blew up pylons, were braced for reprisals by right-wing death squads who have threatened to mop up after the regular army invades the zone.

Human rights advocates warned that at least 30 prominent merchants have been put on a blacklist of suspected collaborators by the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces).

There was concern for hundreds of the rebels' captives left behind in makeshift jungle prisons. The unarmed municipal police, who patrolled under Farc domination, are also at risk. "We feel totally abandoned," complained a patrolman, Oscar Morales, 27.

Many people huddled inside their houses, hoping that white flags tied to their windows would signal their neutrality. Phone lines had been cut by fleeing guerrillas, and refugees prepared to leave after daybreak. A faded roadside signboard spelt out local sentiments: "The gringos give the arms. Colombia provides the dead." More than 40,000 people have died in the past 10 years, one in six of them civilians.

An Air Force General, Hector Fabio Velazco, said that military jets had dropped 1,500lb bombs on Farc training camps on Thursday, and targeted stores of weapons, chemicals and fuel. There were unconfirmed reports of three civilians killed by a stray bomb.

Fears are widespread that displaced Farc rebels will take their war on to urban streets, but Colombian military analysts predicted that the 50,000 army regulars, along with an estimated 400 US military advisers, can contain the conflict.

US involvement looks set to deepen. American military equipment supplied by the billion-dollar Plan Colombia has until now been restricted to use in drug interdiction. But Asa Hutchinson, George Bush's new anti-drug tsar, castigated the Farc as "narco-terrorists" during a Mexico City news conference, and the line separating the American anti-drug effort from the fight against insurgents is getting blurred.

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