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Observers Expect Escalation of Colombian Conflict - 2002-01-13

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has rejected a proposal by Marxist rebels to renew the South American nation's battered peace process. Observers on the scene now expect an escalation of the conflict.

President Pastrana's rejection of the rebel proposal has set the stage for renewed combat in the southern part of Colombia, where a relative peace has existed for the past few years. In a nationally televised address, the Colombian leader said the rebel proposal was insufficient and contained nothing new.

Leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, announced the proposal late Saturday, close to the deadline set by President Pastrana for renewing the peace process. FARC leaders said it had been worked out in meetings with United Nations envoy James LeMoyne, who had met with them Saturday.

After rejecting the rebel offer, President Pastrana gave the insurgents 48 hours to abandon their safe zone in southern Colombia. He had allowed the FARC to occupy the area, about the size of Switzerland, in 1998, as part of an effort to end a civil war that has lasted nearly four decades. Colombian army troops have been deployed near the borders of the zone in anticipation of an order to move in and reoccupy it.

Civilians in the area have expressed concern that they will soon be caught in the middle of the battles between the FARC and the army, which could begin when the deadline for rebel withdrawal expires at 9:30 PM Colombia time Monday (0230 UTC Tuesday).

Military analysts say the Colombian army will likely be able to take major towns in the zone, but that the rebels will be able to hold on to rural areas and carry out guerrilla attacks. Colombian troops have been bolstered by training, equipment and funds from the United States, provided under Plan Colombia. The purpose of the U.S. program is to cut drug production in the Andean region, but the FARC has denounced it as U.S. intervention in the civil conflict. Much of the rebel group's funding has come from unofficial taxes imposed on cocaine-growers in the mountainous regions of southern Colombia.

More than 3,500 people die each year in Colombia as a result of the civil conflict that has raged for 38 years. Human rights organizations say an escalation of the conflict will only bring more suffering and death, but many Colombians have grown weary of a peace process that has allowed the rebels to hold 40 percent of the country. Many military analysts also believe FARC leaders have used the negotiating process and the safe haven to strengthen their organization and bolster their ranks.