- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia Colombia's government yesterday ruled out swapping captured rebels for a kidnapped presidential candidate, and the rebels responded to an army offensive by killing three soldiers and destroying power lines, roads and bridges.
Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, at a roadblock in a war zone Saturday. The rebels had reportedly offered to free her and other kidnapped politicians in exchange for the release of imprisoned guerrillas. The FARC is holding five members of Congress, in addition to Mrs. Betancourt.
"The government does not see the possibility of carrying on swap negotiations," Interior Minister Armando Estrada said yesterday. "Prisoner exchanges are done between equals, between combatants. She was not a combatant, nor are the lawmakers."
Meanwhile, military operations to search for Mrs. Betancourt, who is a candidate for the small Oxygen-Green party, have been suspended on the family's request for fear they could put her life in danger, said Betancourt campaign spokeswoman Diana Rodriguez.
On Monday, an army soldier was killed after troops fired at rebels tampering with power lines, and the rebels responded. Two other soldiers died trying to defuse a bomb on a bus blocking a highway.
In the capital, Bogota, 190 miles north of the war zone, guerrillas detonated a bomb at a reservoir serving the capital city. The attack didn't affect water supplies, Mayor Antanas Mockus said.
In 1998, the government gave the FARC a Switzerland-sized parcel of land to lure the nation's largest rebel group into peace talks. But when the FARC hijacked a civilian airliner last week and kidnapped a senator, President Andres Pastrana canceled talks, ordered the rebels out of the zone and sent his troops in.
Since then, rebels have toppled utility pylons both inside and outside the zone in southern Colombia, blacking out or forcing electricity rationing in at least 56 towns, the Energy Ministry said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that "the good will of the Pastrana government and the Colombian people has not been reciprocated by the FARC." Rebel "terrorist actions are a real affront to people who seek peace in Colombia," he said.
U.S. intelligence sharing is being increased, and deliveries of spare parts for U.S. helicopters are being accelerated. Officials also were addressing an existing ban on U.S. military assistance for anything other than counternarcotics activities.
San Vicente del Caguan the former rebel capital that was the first town occupied by the army on Saturday has been among those hit the hardest. A downed bridge and rebel roadblocks have virtually isolated the sweltering town. Food stocks are dwindling, and drinking water is scarce.
Mayor Nestor Ramirez declared a local state of emergency and asked troops to supply his town of 22,000 by using military helicopters.
The FARC has blown up 11 bridges since Thursday, disrupting transportation in southern Colombia.
Colombian news media reported Monday that the FARC executed five persons in La Macarena, which the army had yet to reach. The reasons for the killings were not known.
Mr. Pastrana was reviewing the volatile situation with his Cabinet and "looking for other ways to stop the terrorism and abductions," Justice Minister Romulo Gonzalez said.
Mrs. Betancourt's kidnapping aroused international concern for the security of candidates in the March legislative elections and May 26 presidential vote.

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