Fri, Nov 03, 2006 - Page 7 News List

29 die in Colombia attack

AFP , MONTERIA, COLOMBIA

Combat soldiers patrol near Tierradentro, Colombia, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

Twenty-nine people were killed in fierce fighting on Wednesday after leftist guerrillas attacked a police station in northern Colombia in the country's bloodiest incident this year, officials said.

The violence came two weeks after President Alvaro Uribe renewed his vow to crush the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest and best-armed guerrilla group, who were blamed for the attack.

The dead included 17 police officers, 11 rebels and a civilian. Two police officers and a civilian were injured in the fighting, National Police chief Jorge Castro said.

Guerrillas attacked the police station of Tierradentro, in the northern department of Cordoba, at 3am on Wednesday, firing rifles and launching home-made mortars made with gas cylinders, he said.

At least 150 guerrillas joined in the attack on the station, which had 70 police officers, he said.

Castro was in the provincial capital of Monteria to coordinate operations to hunt down the rebels.

Tierradentro is located some 380km north of Bogota.

The head of the Colombian Air Force, General Jorge Ballesteros, said he had ordered helicopter gunships and low-flying airplanes to the area to hunt down the rebels.

The region was formerly a stronghold of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that recently left the area after reaching a peace agreement with government negotiators. Some 31,000 AUC fighters disarmed as part of the peace process, according to the government.

Coca, the source plant for cocaine, is also widely grown in the region. Both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces have financed operations through coca cultivation.

The illegal drug trade fuels the violence that has killed an estimated 200,000 Colombians over the past 40 years.

The fierce attack -- the deadliest this year -- comes two weeks after Uribe abruptly ended negotiations with the Marxist rebels on a hostage swap and ordered the army to step up operations aimed at rescuing abductees.

The swap deal would have exchanged 58 high-profile hostages, including former presidential candidate and senator Ingrid Betancourt, a French national, and three US nationals, for some 500 jailed rebels.

Uribe ended all speculation of a prisoner-for-hostages swap after a car bomb exploded in the country's largest military complex in Bogota on Oct. 19, wounding 21. Uribe quickly blamed the FARC for the attack.

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