- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia President Andres Pastrana returned yesterday to the very spot in former rebel territory where he began a tortuous peace process three years ago and blamed the guerrillas for sabotaging the talks to end Colombia's 38-year war.
Mr. Pastrana touched down by helicopter on a soccer field in the southern cattle-ranching town of San Vicente del Caguan, just hours after army troops stealthily occupied it, yanked down a rebel flag and tossed the flag into the trash.
Mr. Pastrana is trying to reassert government authority over cattle country and tropical jungle in southern Colombia that he ceded to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 1998 as an incentive to end the war. The region is twice the size of New Jersey with about 100,000 residents.
He angrily revoked the zone when rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a Colombian senator Wednesday, ordering hundreds of air strikes on rebel targets and mobilizing 13,000 troops to retake the zone.
Two U.S. soldiers, including the head of the 250-member U.S. military adviser contingent in Colombia, accompanied Mr. Pastrana's entourage and said they were going to monitor the military situation. Washington has been equipping and training Colombia's anti-narcotics forces and has been asked by Mr. Pastrana to provide direct military aid to use against the rebels.
Army chief Gen. Jorge Mora said the offensive was progressing as planned. Another Colombian officer, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said government attacks on roads and airstrips would continue.
Addressing 3,000 residents packed into a shabby town plaza under a sweltering sun, Mr. Pastrana accused the FARC of staging 117 attacks in recent weeks, ruining a peace process that had been the cornerstone of his administration.
"They were the ones who made the decision to break away from the negotiating table," the president declared. "The Colombian president never abandoned his seat at the peace table."
Mr. Pastrana recalled that rebel leader Manuel Marulanda failed to show up for the first peace talks at the same town square in January 1999. It was a huge embarrassment for Mr. Pastrana and confirmed many Colombians' belief that the FARC was not serious about talks.
As the president spoke yesterday, two army sharpshooters in a church belltower scanned the crowd through the scopes of their sniper rifles, and U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters thundered overhead.
San Vicente was the first rebel town to fall to the army, which had seized a nearby army base Friday. A patrol squad snaked into San Vicente's streets at dawn yesterday.
In less than three days, this town traded one armed group for another, both blood enemies. But many residents took the change with aplomb.
"You have to get used to changes in life," said Claudia Patricia Castaneda, a waitress at a soda shop who was serving ice cream and soft drinks to soldiers with weapons slung over their shoulders.
Soldiers tore down a sign in front of a FARC press office. Others patrolled streets with bomb-sniffing dogs, seeking out land mines and booby traps.
Troops cautiously advanced on four other towns inside the former demilitarized zone. National Police Gen. Tobias Duran said the soldiers and police behind them were likely to find innumerable rebel bombs. Deeper inside the zone, troops deactivated explosives packed by the rebels into a bus that was blocking a key roadway, officials said.
Under intense international pressure, the FARC had agreed in January to begin cease-fire talks in April. Then it escalated its attacks, angering a nation already disillusioned with Mr. Pastrana's seeming permissiveness toward the rebels.
The FARC said Friday it isn't interested in new peace talks with Mr. Pastrana, whose term in office ends in August.
Colombia's largest guerrilla army apparently vanished into the tropical jungles of its former sanctuary ahead of the military offensive.
Just outside the eastern border of the zone, about 200 people waved white flags and chanted peace slogans as they walked from the city of Granada to a bridge destroyed by the rebels. They wanted to show their solidarity with civilians deep inside.
"We've had enough of war," said Jorge Criales, 86. "We need peace here."
Elsewhere, officials reported that rebels destroyed a bridge near Florencia, downed two electrical transmission towers in Cauca state and rigged two cars with explosives on a highway near the zone.
At least 10 right-wing paramilitary fighters were killed late Friday in combat with the FARC in western Colombia, said army Col. Edgar Cifuentes.
Many predicted that the FARC was saving its heaviest retaliation. "There will probably be an economic war, an urban war, a war against the oligarchy in the cities like we've never seen before," said Carlos Franco, a political analyst and former guerrilla.
The FARC says it fights in the name of Colombia's poor. A majority of Colombians believe the rebels are little more than terrorists, kidnappers and drug traffickers.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that Washington would increase intelligence sharing with Colombia's military and accelerate deliveries of spare parts for military equipment. Colombian Ambassador Luis Moreno welcomed the announcement but said his government wants permission to use the U.S. equipment already provided for the drug war "to prevent acts of terrorism."

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