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Civilians Caught in Colombian War

October 28, 2000

SAN ISIDRO, Colombia (AP) _ At almost any sudden noise, the children in Adiela Vela’s class give a startled jump. Eyes dart through windows to a band of right-wing militiamen whose weapons are trained down the road.

Leftist rebels are only about a mile away, manning their own outpost on the rutted dirt track.

This is the front line in the battle for the heart of the world’s cocaine-producing industry. And not only are civilians caught in the cross fire, they are also now enduring a rebel blockade.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia _ the largest of the leftist rebel groups that have been fighting the government and right-wing paramilitaries for years in a bloody civil war _ imposed the armed shutdown five weeks ago. Most of the world’s coca, from which cocaine is made, is grown in southern Colombia’s Putumayo state, and the rebel group launched the shutdown to protest a planned U.S.-backed offensive to stamp out the drug trade here.

The FARC rebels have banned vehicles from traveling between towns in all but the limited areas under the control of the army or the rightist paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC. Violators can be killed or have their cars set ablaze.

The rebels are also waging a sabotage campaign that has cut electricity to major towns and sent the local oil industry up in flames.

``It’s getting serious around here,″ local farmer Adolfo Mina said as he walked past an oil pipeline the rebels had set ablaze minutes earlier. Flames shot more than 100 feet into the air, producing a plume of black smoke that towered over the landscape of jungle, coca fields and cattle pastures.

The rebels have threatened to maintain the armed shutdown until President Andres Pastrana revamps his Plan Colombia, the initiative that calls for U.S.-trained army troops to seize the coca fields. The United States recently approved $1.3 billion to support Plan Colombia with military training and hardware, including dozens of combat helicopters.

``Our ideology is to defend the worker, the common man. If they want to work the coca, then they should be permitted to do so,″ explained a rebel, wearing a camouflage uniform and a black FARC neckerchief, as he guarded a rural road.

There is also a financial motive: The FARC and the AUC are getting rich by taxing cocaine producers.

The AUC, which arrived in Putumayo a year ago from northwest Colombia, now controls several towns and is pushing further into FARC territory.

Every day, civilians sweat through AUC roadblocks. The paramilitary gunmen click safeties off assault rifles, ready to haul away anyone believed to be a rebel partisan.

AUC graffiti on a house in San Isidro, a little village on the front lines, clearly spells out the threat: ``Death to guerrilla informants.″

The AUC, which is backed by many Colombian landowners, sprang up to counter the spread of the leftist rebel groups. The government acknowledges there are some unofficial links between the military and the AUC but says it is acting to sever those ties, and has fired several generals who allegedly supported AUC operations.

Some paramilitary gunmen here this week wore Colombian army shirts _ with the insignia of anti-guerrilla battalions _ over their black AUC T-shirts, and proudly identified themselves as former government soldiers. One even sported a patch of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and said he had received training from the outfit when he was in the service.

A group of Rambo-like AUC fighters stood outside the cement one-room schoolhouse in San Isidro as the young students tried to concentrate on their studies.

``The kids get jumpy. You can see they’re stressed,″ Vela, their teacher, said later. ``They’re terrified that shooting will break out at any minute.″

Meanwhile, the effects of the rebel blockade are being felt across Putumayo.

Hospitals are running critically short of supplies. Store shelves are running bare, although some goods make it to a few shops at three or more times the normal price. More goods from nearby Ecuador are also being smuggled across jungle rivers that define the border.

Terrified Colombians are heading the other way. Thousands have fled to Ecuador since September, according to relief agencies.

``With the paramilitaries and the FARC fighting for territory, anyone can wind up getting shot _ either in the cross fire or after being accused of collaborating with the other side,″ said a man who recently fled across the border.

The man, who didn’t want to be identified for security reasons, was staying at a preschool in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, with 40 other refugees. Almost 600 refugees have registered with the Lago Agrio church, which is working with a United Nations agency to help the refugees.

``They’ve left everything behind _ their farms, animals and most of their possessions,″ said the local priest, the Rev. Edgar Pinos.

Meanwhile, other families are trying to flee Putumayo on one of the infrequent military evacuation flights. More than a 100 people stood outside the region’s airport, in Puerto Asis, on a recent day.

``We are suffering the consequences of a war that has nothing to do with us,″ said Dagoberto Rojas as he waited for a flight. ``Here, we are caught between the bullets.″

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