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Colombian Rebels Escalate Conflict, Target Essential Services - 2002-02-24

Colombia is starting to feel the first wave of an escalation in the guerilla war as rebels take aim at the country's essential services. The army is taking control of parts of a huge demilitarized zone held for three years by left-wing rebels. This, despite land mines and booby traps left behind by the retreating guerrillas, after they were forced to give up the zone when peace talks fell apart this week.

Colombian soldiers pulled down guerrilla placards today in San Vicente de Caguan, the main town in the former demilitarized zone, they wrenched rebel flags down from their poles and stuffed them into the garbage. "That flag is illegal," one soldier explained to local journalists. "I took it down to give this whole town a message. It's a message the whole country is feeling, the guerrillas are out, the army is in. And most Colombians are quite pleased about that."

After three disappointing years of peace talks, Colombians feel they've been had by the rebels, who used the peace process and their demilitarized zone to wrack up millions of dollars through kidnappings, extortion, and drug trafficking. Now many Colombians are clamoring for the army to bring the rebels to their knees, if they can.

And President Andres Pastrana has for the first time, rescinded the FARC's political status and declared it a terrorist group.

A U.S. State Department official says that declaration has opened the door for the U.S. government to offer Colombia greater assistance with information and intelligence in its fight against the FARC.

The guerillas first response to the breakdown of the peace talks has been to attack the country's infrastructure. They destroyed a power generating station just outside their former demilitarized zone. "They came in and machine-gunned the transformers," explained station manager Julio Alberto Gomez, "and then, they set fire to the plant. One whole province, suddenly lost power."

Other regions of the country have lost phone and water service as the rebels blew up key pipelines and telecommunications towers.

The army and police are spread thin trying to anticipate the attacks. Colombians expected this kind of reaction from the guerrillas... and so far they've taken it in stride. But the entire country is on edge, waiting for the next charge of dynamite to blow.