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Colombian Forces Battle Rebels

October 17, 2002

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MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ After a bloody day of fighting in Colombia’s second-largest city, the army and police prepared a new offensive to try to wrest control of a sprawling neighborhood from leftist rebels.

President Alvaro Uribe’s government on Thursday was to pour fresh troops into the effort to clear rebels of the Armed Command of the People from the Comuna 13 neighborhood, army officials said. The rebel group is allied with the National Liberation Army.

At least nine people _ including three soldiers, three rebels, a policeman and a 16-year-old civilian boy _ were killed Wednesday in the first day of Operation Orion, which marked the heaviest urban fighting in Colombia’s civil war in almost two decades.

``These are labyrinths. A concrete jungle,″ army Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of the Medellin-based 4th Brigade, said as night fell over this city of 2.5 million.

Montoya’s troops are more used to fighting in the jungles and mountains of this South American country, not in its city streets.

The United Nations human rights office said it was ``deeply worried″ about civilians caught in the cross fire. Fourteen civilians were among the 20 people known to have been wounded in Wednesday’s fighting, Medellin emergency director Rafael Rincon said.

Some 30 residents, most of them children, fled the neighborhood in a group Wednesday, bearing aloft a white sheet in hopes they would not be shot at. Helicopters darted overhead with guns blazing, while bursts of gunfire and explosions echoed down the streets.

Tents filled with stretchers were erected nearby, while ambulances stood ready to transport the wounded.

Despite the danger, buses loaded with passengers headed into the neighborhood, which lies on a hill overlooking the city. Police standing next to a wall covered with rebel graffiti searched the buses and passengers.

``It falls to us to live in these dangerous times,″ said salesman Alvaro Quiceno as he returned to his bus seat to head home to his family.

Asked why he was returning in the middle of the fighting, he answered, ``Where else do I go?″

One woman, attempting to return home from her janitorial job, wrung her hands as she listened to the crackle of automatic weapons fire coming from Comuna 13, where about 130,000 people live.

``I’m afraid to go back there,″ the woman said before hurrying away to call home. She declined to identify herself.

On Wednesday, government security forces overran a building where rebels were holding businessman Fernando Molina hostage. After his rescue, Molina _ with stubble on his chin and tears in his eyes _ stepped out of an armored police vehicle for a family reunion.

Medellin was the epicenter of a 1980s terror war waged by drug traffickers but in recent years had appeared to bury its violent past.

However, urban militias linked to Colombia’s two main leftist rebel groups have been growing in Comuna 13 and other poorer neighborhoods of Medellin for years. In recent months, an outlawed right-wing paramilitary group began fighting rebels in the barrios.

Now, security forces have received orders directly from Uribe to drive the rebel militias out, Medellin Mayor Luis Perez said.

``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.

The urban combat marks a new phase in Colombia’s 38-year civil war, which generally has been fought in the countryside. There has been no substantial fighting in Colombia’s cities since 1985, when the now disbanded M-19 rebel group stormed the Palace of Justice in the capital, Bogota, and set off a blood bath.

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