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Colombia army chief says forces ready to battle FARC
TOLEMAIDA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Colombia's military, bracing for what could be one of its toughest battles yet, said on Tuesday it was prepared to retake a vast swath of territory ceded to Marxist rebels for peace talks two years ago.
"The Colombian Army is ready and it is prepared for anything," said army commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a ceremony attended by President Andres Pastrana at this military base southwest of the Andean nation's capital.
He was referring to the possibility of reimposing government control over a Switzerland-sized area of southern Colombia that Pastrana has left under the control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) since November 1998. The move created a safe haven for rebel leaders to engage in peace talks with the government.
But negotiations quickly stalled and the FARC -- Latin America's largest and oldest guerrilla group -- plunged the faltering process into further crisis last month by saying it was suspending talks indefinitely.
Colombia's internal conflict has taken 35,000 lives since 1990.
Land-for-peace deal extension
Pastrana held out a fresh olive branch to the FARC last week by announcing that the land-for-peace deal with the rebel army would remain in effect until January 31 -- well past a December 6 deadline -- even though insurgents were no longer at the negotiating table.
That extension, the sixth since the 16,000-square-mile (42,000-sq-km) rebel enclave was created 25 months ago, may well be the last unless the FARC agrees to reopen talks.
If the army dispatches troops to oust rebels from the zone, a FARC stronghold long before it was tacitly recognized as its headquarters, analysts have warned that the country could plunge into all-out war.
"I think this bit about 55 days sends a message to these bandits that the country is tired," said Mora, referring to the time limit set by Pastrana last week, when he again extended de facto FARC control over the demilitarized zone.
"The country is hoping that at the end of the 55 days there will be some true signs of peace, and that the peace process will run the course Colombians want it to," he said.
If given the order, however, Mora said the army was prepared "right now" or "tomorrow" to enforce the rule of law and order.
"That territory (the demilitarized zone) must belong to the Colombian people, and the army of Colombia has a constitutional mission (to fulfill)," Mora said.
Critics of the rebels, Pastrana's own defense minister among them, say the FARC has turned the zone into an independent republic, using its forces in the area to launch attacks across the country, stockpile weapons, hold kidnap victims and recruit teen-agers into its ranks.
In its annual report issued last week, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accused the FARC of using the demilitarized zone "to murder civilians, execute captured government soldiers and rival guerrilla combatants after surrender, threaten and kill civilians who refused to cede to their demands, take hostages and force thousands of Colombians to flee and become displaced.
The report said Human Rights Watch had "investigated evidence linking the group to at least 26 murders" in the zone, which is home to about 96,000 people.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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