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Nine Killed in Colombia Fighting

October 16, 2002

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MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ More than 1,000 police and soldiers stormed a violence-plagued neighborhood in Colombia’s second largest city Wednesday, exchanging heavy fire with leftist rebels. Authorities said at least nine people were killed, including a 16-year-old boy.

The security forces were trying to oust leftist rebels of the Armed Command of the People from the Comuna 13 neighborhood, police said. The rebel group is allied with the National Liberation Army.

Four soldiers, one police officer, three rebels and the teenager died in the fighting, according to Medellin’s emergency director, Rafael Rincon.

Another 20 were wounded, among them 14 civilians, he said. Rincon was worried there were more casualties in the neighborhood.

``We are very concerned,″ said Rincon, as he stood at the edge of the neighborhood amid tents that had been erected and filled with stretchers for more possible wounded. Half a dozen ambulances waited nearby.

Some 30 residents, most of them children, fled in the early afternoon, holding a white sheet up so security forces would not fire on them as they crossed between the warring sides. But despite the danger, buses headed up into the neighborhood which lies on a hill overlooking the city. Half a dozen police searched the passengers by a wall covered with rebel graffiti.

``It falls to us to live in these dangerous times,″ said Alvaro Quiceno, a salesman, as he returned to his seat on the bus. Asked why he was returning in the middle of the fighting, he said ``where else do I go?″ adding his family lived up there.

Among those confirmed dead was the suspected commander of the rebel group, known by his alias ``Mazo,″ Army Gen. Mario Montoya said.

National police wearing bullet proof vests and carrying assault rifles searched everyone going into and out of the area. Reporters were not being allowed entry to the neighborhood, where some 130,000 of Medellin’s 2.5 million residents live.

Medellin mayor Luis Perez said security forces had received orders directly from President Alvaro Uribe to continue the operation until the neighborhood was under control.

``The order that the president has given is that no neighborhood in the city of Medellin can be in the hands of anyone besides the citizens and government security forces,″ Perez said.

Residents are accustomed to violence.

``You normally hear shooting, day and night,″ said Joaquina Builes, 55, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood. ``What you have to do is go farther inside, not stand near windows.″

For the past several months, rebels and illegal right-wing militias have been fighting for control of Comuna 13 and several other outlying neighborhoods in Medellin, about 155 miles northwest of Bogota. Government forces have periodically entered the fray and several civilians have died in the crossfire.

The urban combat marks a new phase in Colombia’s long-simmering war, which has generally been fought in the countryside.

Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, has a history of extreme violence going back to the drug wars of the 1980s and early 1990s when the city was home to the late drug king Pablo Escobar.

Some 3,500 people, most of them civilians, die every year in Colombia’s 38-year civil war.

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