COLOMBIA: More war, more peace talks

Issue 

While combat raged in Colombia, more than 300 delegates of the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-largest rebel group, as well as from the United States, European Union and Latin America, began a three-day meeting on October 16 in San Jose, Costa Rica to discuss the peace process. The meeting, which was sponsored by a group called Paz Colombia (Peace Colombia), sought a negotiated solution to the conflict.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — Colombia's main leftist rebel group — were also invited to attend, but declined. In an open letter to the conference participants, the FARC emphasised their commitment to peace but said they could not attend because of security risks and because it refuses to meet with "paramilitary spokespeople".

Fifty-two Colombian soldiers and two police agents were killed on October 19 during a government counteroffensive directed at some 1000 FARC rebels from in the Uraba region of northern Colombia. Among the dead were 22 soldiers killed when the US-made Black Hawk helicopter in which they were travelling was shot down by rebels. Thirty other soldiers were killed by the rebels as they disembarked from two other US-made helicopters. A FARC communique reported that five rebels were killed.

More than 1600 troops from counterinsurgency and special forces battalions took part in the army operation, which was personally led by Army commander General Jorge Mora. In Bagado, in neighbouring Choco department, some 500 FARC rebels seized the municipal centre.

In the southern department of Putumayo, combat intensified during the week of October 16 between army troops and FARC rebels, and between rebels and right-wing paramilitary forces, provoking a wave of new refugees.

On October 16 and 17, right-wing paramilitaries massacred at least 15 people in Montes de Maria, and in the Bolivar and Sucre departments in northern Colombia. The attack forced some 4000 campesinos to flee to the nearby municipal centre of El Carmen de Bolivar. In a communique, the FARC blamed the massacre on the First Marine Infantry Brigade led by Colonel Rodrigo Quinones Cardenas. The massacre "was carried out by the Tiburon (Shark) company of the 31st Counter-Guerrilla Battalion of the Marine Infantry and elements from the army's 11th Brigade", who also stole livestock and burned the homes of the campesinos.

On October 12, a group of about 20 armed paramilitaries abducted 14 people from the village of La Chorrera in Barbosa municipality, Antioquia department. According to witnesses, the paramilitaries brought a list naming their victims and accused them of being guerrilla supporters. Witnesses say a hooded woman — presumed to be a former member of the leftist National Liberation Army — was pointing out the victims to the paramilitaries.

After taking the victims from their homes, the paramilitaries gathered the remaining residents in a public place and threatened them with future retribution if people continued to collaborate with guerrilla groups. Graffiti alluding to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia's main right-wing paramilitary organisation, was left on the walls of the village.

Hours later, two of those abducted returned to their homes. The bodies of 11 of the victims were found in the pre-dawn hours of October 13. One other person was injured, and presumably later died, since later sources reported the death toll as 12.

On October 15, a group of armed assailants attacked the small town of Nazaret in the Panamanian province of Darien, near the border with Colombia, killing 12-year-old Maria Mecha and wounding 12 other people, including three police officers. The attackers are believed to be Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups who targeted the village to take revenge against those they believe are rebel supporters.

Panamanian legislator Miguel Bush warned on October 16 that some 1800 US soldiers were staying in hotels in Panama City "disguised as tourists". The soldiers, he said, are involved in Plan Colombia, the US-backed military plan ostensibly aimed at drug traffickers in the region.

On October 17, the Fourth Conference of Defense Ministers of America began in Manaus, Brazil. US defence secretary William Cohen represented the US.

At the top of the agenda was the situation in Colombia, and Cohen's goal was to win support from the neighbouring countries for Plan Colombia. In a written version of his October 18 conference speech, Cohen said that the "US is concerned with the overflowing of Colombian problems into neighbouring states, a phenomenon that has been growing in recent years. And we believe that it will get worse if we do nothing. Working together, we hope to help Colombia in its need to prevent its problems from transcending the borders toward its neighbours."

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