Rebel ambush leaves 85 dead in Colombia

Click to follow
A FIERCE battle between Colombia's army and Marxist rebels left at least 85 people dead and 96 soldiers missing yesterday in the mountains 16 miles east of Bogota, the capital, yesterday.

The surprise attack by rebels from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) came two weeks before long-awaited peace talks with President Andres Pastrana, which had once been scheduled to begin last week.

Heavy fighting so close to the capital is rare in this conflict, which has dragged on for nearly four decades.

About 500 rebels fought through the night against five army batallions supported by helicopter gunships and air force combat planes. The rebel leader, Henry Castellanos, better known as "Romana", is notorious for his highway abductions, which have been described as "miraculous fishing" by the guerrillas.

FARC, the oldest and largest guerrilla group in Colombia, numbers about 12,000 armed insurgents, which include men, women and children. They control an autonomous region in the country's northern jungles the size of Switzerland.

The battle broke out in Gutierrez, which is located in a strategic corridor that connects Bogota to this jungle zone, where skirmishes have occurred in the past.

Colombia's Defence Minister, Luis Ramirez, said yesterday: "This rebel group thinks the way to arrive with strength at the peace negotiation table is by escalating violence in the zone, but this strategy is absolutely mistaken."

General Fernando Tapies said the army had detected rebel movements by satellite over the past week, and that the guerrillas had set out from Uribe, the same northern village where the peace talks are due to be held.

President Pastrana, under pressure to end hostilities with FARC, to whom he has given unprecedented concessions, decried their "demented war", and said the peace process would be adversely affected

Less than two weeks ago, in a surreal act of private diplomacy, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Grasso, met FARC leaders to advise them about finance. For years, the guerrillas have paid for arms through ransom, extortion and increasingly through drug profits. Half of Colombia's states are racked by warfare and at least one and a half million civilians have been displaced in the past 15 years because of the fighting.

An official from the US State Department, Peter Romero, accused FARC of searching for excuses to abstain from negotiating in good faith. He also condemned their cross-border forays into Venezuela.