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Death Toll in N.Colombia Nears 80

May 16, 2002

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Fifty bodies were found scattered about a battlefield in northwest Colombia, raising the death toll to nearly 80 in fighting there between leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the army, an official said Thursday.

The dead were mostly guerrillas and paramilitaries battling for strategic territory in northern Antioquia state, a prime corridor for moving troops, arms and the illegal drugs that are financing the country’s 38-year war.

``There are 78 people confirmed dead, apparently all combatants,″ Dairo Quinones, town manager for Campamento in Antioquia, said by telephone Thursday.

Quinones said 28 bodies were already stacked in the town morgue. Town officials who reached the site late Wednesday spotted more than 50 bodies of rebels and paramilitaries still lying about the fields, he said.

The army has reported one soldier killed in the clashes, which broke out Tuesday and tailed off Wednesday.

Since the collapse of peace talks in February, guerrillas have been trying to recapture territory lost to their rivals in the area. The battle line stretches toward the border with Panama, and includes the village of Bojaya, where a stray guerrilla mortar struck a church May 2 amid fighting with paramilitaries, killing 117 civilians.

Army officials on Wednesday reported at least 25 dead around Campamento, located about 180 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota.

Troops and government warplanes were called into the area after fighting broke out between the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

Air force fighters reportedly strafed the area, adding to the deaths.

Human rights monitors accuse Colombia’s U.S.-backed security forces of collaborating with the paramilitaries, who have massacred thousands of suspected leftist collaborators. President Andres Pastrana’s government, seeking wider U.S. military aid, claims it is battling both outlaw groups with the same intensity.

At least 3,500 people die annually in Latin America’s longest running guerrilla conflict. The Marxist-inspired rebels say they are waging their war to seize power and rid Colombia of its chronic poverty and corruption. The landowner-backed paramilitaries arose to combat the guerrillas.

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