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Survivors: Defense hopeless in Colombian rebel mountain assault

December 24, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Two soldiers who fled a massive rebel attack on their remote Colombian mountain outpost said Tuesday that their unit was sleeping and overwhelmed by the pre-dawn raid.

Five soldiers’ bodies were found by troops making their way up the mountain on Tuesday, but the fate of nearly two dozen others remained a mystery.

The two men were among four survivors transported to safety Tuesday and debriefed in nearby Pasto, 330 miles southwest of Bogota, said Gen. Mario Hugo Galan, the army commander, as worried relatives waited outside.

Three men were found by a motor boat driver who brought them down the mountain and the fourth was found later by an army rescue team.

``The inclement weather, and the remoteness (of the base) have made this situation all very difficult,″ Galan said.

An army rescue team reached the destroyed communications post on Tuesday, but found no additional soldiers, he said. They were expected to search the area more carefully on Wednesday.

Galan said bodies could be trapped under the rubble or some of the 23 unaccounted for soldiers might be in the hands of the rebels.

The survivors told of a fierce and sudden rebel assault.

``At five o’clock in the morning (after a three-hour battle) it was impossible to do anything more because the path was filled with rebels,″ said Cpl. Fernando Naranjo from a hospital bed. ``That’s when I took the initiative that we soldiers have _ to save our lives.″

Pvt. Andres Leonardo Buidron said the men were sleeping Sunday when the army communications post, a concrete building with minimal defenses, was rocked by explosions. Some leaped for defense trenches, but were no match for the rebels.

``It was pure mortar fire that fell on the house,″ Buidron told reporters. ``There were many rebels, men and women.″

Neither knew how many sentries, if any, were posted outside when about 400 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked the base at 12,500 feet on Cerro de Patascoy mountain. Naranjo said military intelligence had warned two weeks earlier that rebels might attack.

Galan said the army would investigate whether security was too lax at the base and ``if there were security failures, those who have to be punished will be punished.″

Naranjo and Buidron said they had left three other survivors badly wounded during the attack in a rapidly constructed shelter on the mountain. Galan said the army found the injured man in the shelter, but nobody else.

Buidron said one soldier who survived the assault fell into an abyss on the mountain as the group descended and couldn’t be rescued.

The men said they didn’t know the number of casualties in Sunday’s assault, but FARC fighters in the area told a peasant they had killed 22 soldiers. The peasant passed the information to military officials, who couldn’t confirm the number of dead and said a rescue team had not yet reached the post.

The raid was part of a pre-Christmas offensive in which rebels killed at least seven soldiers and police in other attacks.

Rebels said they would retaliate after massacres carried out in the past month by landowner-backed paramilitaries, who operate with the tacit support of the armed forces.

``When the army is not acting directly disguised as paramilitaries, joint patrols of army and paramilitaries are sowing death and terror among civilian noncombatants,″ the FARC said in a communique received by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

FARC, with an estimated 12,000 fighters, is the largest and oldest guerrilla band fighting the state.

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