Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombian town's entire council flees into exile

DEADLY PROFESSION The entire council of Villavieja has quit and moved to a neighboring city after rebels killed 16 council members in three towns so far this year

AP , VILLAVIEJA, COLOMBIA

The entire municipal council of a town in rural Colombia has resigned and fled to a nearby city, fearing for their lives amid a spate of political killings.

All nine council members in the remote, guerrilla-engulfed town of Villavieja stepped down on Tuesday and relocated to the city of Neiva, capital of Huila Province.

"I'm afraid, very afraid," Council President Edgar Almanza said, struggling to hold back tears.

Despite a heavy military presence, leftist rebels still dominate much of the rural province, home to some 840,000 people, 240km southwest of the capital of Bogota.

So far this year, 16 council members in three towns have been killed in the region by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's largest rebel group.

The most brutal attack -- in the town of Rivera, less than 65km from Villavieja -- saw rebels disguised as police open fire in a hotel where the city council was meeting on Feb. 27, killing nine members.

Almanza believes nobody can guarantee his safety -- not even Colombia's armed forces.

"I feel completely alone," he said.

The military says such fears are unfounded.

"The public security force is providing all the security measures that it should be," said General Jorge Daniel Castro, director of Colombia's national police.

But political violence has been a fixture of Colombia's four-decade-old civil war, with attacks traditionally intensifying ahead of elections. Some 79 city councilmen were killed ahead of the 2002 presidential election, according to Oscar Nunez, head of the National Federation of City Councils.

With Colombians set to pick their next president May 28, that pattern is re-emerging: Last month two bombs exploded near-simultaneously on city buses in the capital, killing three people, including two young boys, and injuring more than 20.

"It's clear the FARC is looking to intimidate voters so that they don't go to the polls on election day," Nunez said. "But the bigger worry is that the cycle of threats, resignations and councilmen abandoning their homes will create a void that the guerrillas will fill with people who represent their interests and ideas."

This scenario may already be taking place. Following the massacre in Rivera, police arrested councilman Pedro Trujillo on suspicion of being a FARC member and masterminding the attack.

According to Diogenes Plata, Huila's government secretary, "all of this province's 380 councilmen are under the threat of death."

As a result, Neiva has become something of a haven for governments in exile -- for a full 12 of the province's 37 municipalities. From a conference room in the provincial capital's heavily guarded government house, councilmen manage the affairs of their constituents by telephone and fax while trying to stay cool in the sweltering heat.

Almanza's flight from danger and into exile meant walking away from his dream, a parcel of land where he had planted some 1,500 cacao trees.

"Hopefully I can recover my land one day," he said. "But there's never a second chance to win back your life."

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