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Colombia: Rebels Carve Stronghold

June 8, 2002

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombian rebels, who have allegedly killed one southern mayor and threatened dozens of others, are trying to carve out a stronghold in the region, Interior Minister Armando Estrada said.

``This is a strategy of the FARC, which wants to make state power disappear in these territories,″ Estrada said, using the acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

``We will not permit this.″

The U.S. Embassy on Friday denounced the killing of Luis Carlos Caro Pacheco, mayor of the town of Solita, as a ``cowardly act″ by the rebels and pledged to work with the Colombian government ``to strengthen state presence and promote socio-economic development in the region.″

In order to more directly confront the insurgents, the Bush administration has asked the U.S. Congress to widen U.S. military assistance to the embattled Colombian government beyond counternarcotics assistance. There are no plans, however, to involve U.S. troops in combat in this South American country.

Estrada said late Thursday that threatened mayors would receive armored cars and communications systems, the official ANCOL news agency reported.

In southern Caqueta state, 16 mayors abandoned their towns after receiving FARC threats that they would become ``military targets″ if they stayed. TV reports Friday said they all resigned.

Six mayors from neighboring Huila state also traveled to the capital, Bogota, this week after being threatened.

Guerrilla threats also prompted officials to close courts Thursday in 10 towns in southern Colombia.

On Wednesday, Caro Pacheco was killed while traveling to a meeting where he and his counterparts from other towns were to discuss the FARC’s intimidation campaign.

The threats came a week after Alvaro Uribe won the presidential elections on promises to take a hard line against the rebels. The chief of the armed forces, Gen. Fernando Tapias, said the threats were retaliation against officials in towns where Uribe won a majority of votes.

Fourteen mayors have been killed and another 16 kidnapped, according to the Federation of Municipalities.

Colombia’s 38-year civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against right-wing paramilitaries and the U.S.-backed government forces. Some 3,500 people, most of them civilians, are killed every year.

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