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Ten Years Later, Questions Remain About Palace of Justice Siege

November 6, 1995

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Holding aloft candles, relatives of the victims of a November 1985 battle between soldiers and rebels who seized the Supreme Court building held a Mass on Monday.

Ten years later, questions remain about the siege in which hundreds of troops, aided by tanks and helicopters, fought a few dozen guerrillas for control of the building.

About 100 people were killed, including 11 Supreme Court justices and dozens of other hostages caught in the crossfire.

The bodies of some of the dead were never found. Relatives say the military killed their family members, believing they were rebels.

About 100 people, some wiping away tears, lit candles and held posters of the missing during the Mass in their honor in downtown Bogota Monday.

``Where are they?″ read a protest banner. Singing peace songs, the families then marched a block to the Palace of Justice, which still stands fire-gutted and empty.

Many details of the Nov. 6-7 assault, perhaps the most dramatic clash in Colombia’s decades-long war against leftist rebels, are still unclear.

Many of those killed were employees at the building or civilians who happened to be there when the takeover occurred.

The state has paid compensation to some families, but at least 11 lawsuits charging the state with wrongful death are still pending after years of legal wrangling.

``The families of the disappeared don’t have the least idea of the truth,″ said 65-year-old Jose Guarin, whose daughter Cristina was working in the palace cafeteria when uniformed rebels surged into the building with shouts of ``Viva Colombia!″

Cristina was one of 11 people in the cafeteria who disappeared. The army suspected rebel infiltrators posed as cafeteria employees.

The rebel takeover was carried out by the M-19 Movement, which laid down its arms in 1990 to join the political process. Several other leftist guerrilla groups are still fighting the government.

The rebel attackers believed President Belisario Betancur had betrayed them in peace negotiations.

The army counterattacked with soldiers firing rockets and tanks blasting through the bronze doors. Fire broke out and a handful of rebels, shepherding dozens of hostages, retreated into a marble-lined bathroom for a final stand.

Betancur was widely criticized for not heeding telephone pleas for a cease-fire from Alfonso Reyes, the Supreme Court president who died in the assault.

Betancur said breaking off the attack would have put the hostages in more danger.

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