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Colombians Mount Anti-War Protests

October 24, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Millions of Colombians marched Sunday in the largest anti-war protest in nearly four decades of civil strife as long-awaited peace negotiations began in a rebel-held town.

Claiming inspiration from such nonviolent crusaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., marchers in 15 major cities and dozens of towns turned out to demand a cease-fire, swift progress in peace talks and an end to violence against civilians _ the principal victims of a war that has claimed at least 30,000 lives.

Tacking peace ribbons to their lapels, painting their faces in the green-and-white colors of the budding peace movement and waving small paper flags bearing the simple slogan ``No Mas″ _ no more _ humanity filled main avenues in Bogota, Medellin and Cali.

``We have awakened from the nightmare of apathy and fear,″ Francisco Santos, a key organizer and newspaper editor from one of the country’s most influential families, thundered to a gathering in Bogota’s Simon Bolivar park.

Santos claimed at least 5.2 million people marched nationwide in this country of 40 million. Police said two million protested in the capital.

Meanwhile, government and guerrilla negotiators convened in Uribe, a ranching town, to launch formal peace negotiations that have stumbled since their ceremonious January inauguration.

Armed rebels mingled through the hundreds of people who had gathered to witness the ceremony involving delegates of President Andres Pastrana’s government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the hemisphere’s most powerful rebel band.

After rebel negotiator Raul Reyes read a speech railing against U.S. military aid, a presidential peace envoy said the country faced two possible futures.

``Either we will destroy ourselves or we will rebuild ourselves,″ peace commissioner Victor G. Ricardo told the gathering.

While both sides boast that peace prospects are more promising than ever, they are also cautioning strongly against expectations of a quick resolution.

Many Colombians are hoping the anti-war movement _ unprecedented in the South American nation where peace activists have been systematically killed by extremists _ will light a fire under the negotiators’ feet.

Bogota marcher Matilde Abril said she had to flee war-torn Casanare province because guerrillas, right-wing militias and common criminals have made life there too dangerous.

``We don’t even go back there anymore ... not even on vacation,″ said the 46-year-old social worker.

The civic protests come amid an escalation in violence that dampened much of the optimism generated by bold moves to forge peace that began with Pastrana’s visit 14 months ago to the jungle hide-out of FARC chieftain Manuel Marulanda.

The president has been severely criticized for pulling troops from a Switzerland-sized southern region including Uribe to create a venue for the talks.

Many Colombians were jolted into action by a surge this year in guerrilla kidnappings and the August assassination of Jaime Garzon, a beloved comic and prominent peace advocate.

One Sunday marcher in the capital held a placard with the words: ``Liberty for Flavio Reyes _ My Father.″

Eduardo Reyes, a university student, hopes leftist rebels will free his 59-year-old father, one of hundreds of churchgoers abducted by guerillas at a Roman Catholic Mass in Cali last May.

Not all Colombians, however, were moved.

``To end the violence, you need jobs and education. You can’t change everything with a march,″ said car-wash employee Henry Pineda, who worked while others marched.

In a Gallup poll published in Cambio magazine Sunday, just 16 percent of Colombians said they thought the FARC was truly committed to peace, and 57 percent advocated a U.S. military intervention against the rebels if negotiations fail.

U.S. officials say they have no intention of sending troops to Colombia, which exports 80 percent of the world’s cocaine. But Washington is stepping up military aid to help battle the rebels, who take huge payoffs for protecting the illegal drug trade.

In Uribe the FARC lampooned the peace protesters’ message, erecting banners with slogans _ including ``No More Hunger″ and ``No More Massacres″ _ meant to legitimize their decades-old struggle for greater democracy and social equality.

The rebels, who also passed out T-shirts declaring ``No More Gringo Soldiers,″ say the country’s two-party system does not represent the poor.

Relatives of some of the roughly 500 soldiers and police the FARC has captured over the past three years arrived to pressure for the release of their loved ones.

``We come bearing a terrible cross,″ said Librada Silva, the teary-eyed mother of a 27-year-old police officer seized by the FARC during a July rebel offensive.

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