- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

FLORENCIA, Colombia Colombian warplanes began bombing a vast rebel territory yesterday and 13,000 troops began massing nearby after the president canceled peace talks and decided to retake the region from leftist guerrillas, the military reported.

President Andres Pastrana formally ended Colombia's three-year peace process Wednesday night, just hours after guerrillas hijacked a domestic airliner and kidnapped a senator onboard.

Mr. Pastrana set a midnight deadline for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to abandon the zone in southern Colombia that he gave to the rebel group in 1998.

The military said it was mobilizing more than 13,000 soldiers from bases located on three sides of the guerrilla safe haven, a region twice the size of New Jersey.

Troops in camouflage uniforms guarded a highway yesterday morning leading from the southern city of Florencia to the rebel zone, about a three-hour drive to the west. They said they were awaiting possible orders to move into the zone.

The army's second in command, Gen. Euclides Sanchez, said a "large-scale" operation was under way to recapture the zone.

Military warplanes and helicopters bombed "85 strategic points within the zone" overnight and the operation was continuing, armed forces spokeswoman Consuelo Garcia told the Associated Press.

More than 200 air attack missions have been flown, the military said.

The military was reportedly bombing rebel installations, including camps, warehouses and airstrips.

In Washington, a senior U.S. official said the Bush administration can understand Mr. Pastrana's frustration with the FARC.

"We supported President Pastrana all along. We said this was his decision," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

[An official of the Organization of American States said in Washington yesterday that the group supports Mr. Pastrana's decision to fight the rebels, reported Steve Park, a correspondent for The Washington Times.

["It is clear that within our 34 member countries terrorists will find neither refuge, nor assistance, nor support and that whoever provides such will be considered complicit," OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said.

[The rebels have answered the Colombian government's efforts for peace and dialogue with acts of kidnapping, terrorism and indiscriminate attacks and this should no longer be tolerated, he said.

[The Times reported earlier this month that FARC leaders, while pledging in public to continue peace talks, had decided privately to work to overthrow the democratically elected government in Colombia. The report of the leaders' "consensus" at a secret summit was contained in a U.S. intelligence report.]

The United States has been providing training, equipment and intelligence support to special Colombian army counter-narcotics units. Steve Lucas, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, said there are about 250 U.S. military people, 50 civilian employees and 100 civilian military contractors in Colombia.

But Gen. Sanchez said there was no U.S. role whatsoever in yesterday's offensive against the FARC.

Mr. Patrana's decision to bomb the rebel zone came shortly after four rebels dressed in civilian clothes and armed with handguns forced an Aires airlines flight to land in southern Colombia.

Camouflage-clad rebels met the plane on a two-lane highway near the town of Hobo and whisked away the hijackers and Sen. Jorge Gechen Turbay, 50, president of the Colombian Senate's peace commission. The remaining 29 passengers and crew were freed unharmed.

The rebel haven is sparsely populated, with about 100,000 residents spread out over five counties, a 16,200 square-mile area.

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