BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Soldiers backed by helicopter gunships retook a vital stretch of highway connecting Colombia’s two main cities on Wednesday, breaking an embarrassing four-day rebel blockade and freeing hundreds of hostages.
The army reported that one soldier was wounded by a land mine. No other casualties were reported.
In a bold gesture of defiance, about 150 rebels of the National Liberation Army blocked the highway that connects Bogota with Medellin on Saturday. They shot out the tires of scores of vehicles and detained about 1,000 people.
Air Force helicopters began buzzing through the area 40 miles east of Medellin on Tuesday night after guerrillas allowed some older women and children to leave. Troops were airlifted in after dawn Wednesday.
In a firefight broadcast live by Colombian television networks, soldiers fired at withdrawing rebels from behind some of the estimated 500 trucks blocking a long, winding stretch of road.
The incident highlighted the increasing danger of road travel in Colombia. Leftist rebels, who control about half the countryside, frequently mount roadblocks and kidnap affluent residents.
The National Liberation Army _ the country’s second-largest rebel band with an estimated 5,000 fighters _ has waged a devastating sabotage campaign in recent weeks, dynamiting oil pipelines and power pylons and forcing electricity rationing for hundreds of thousands of Colombians.
The rebel band is demanding that President Andres Pastrana’s government withdraw troops from a 2,300-square-mile area in the northern state of Bolivar as a condition for opening peace talks. The area is a traditional National Liberation Army bastion.