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Panama, Colombia Officials Set to Meet on Border Control - 2003-01-28

In Panama, heavily armed national police squads are patrolling parts of the Darien region, which borders Colombia, after incidents last week that left at least four Panamanian indigenous leaders dead. There is growing concern that the conflict in neighboring Colombia may be spreading deeper into Panamanian territory.

On Tuesday, several Cabinet officials from Panama will be meeting with counterparts in Colombia to exchange information and consult on how best to control the border area. The Panamanians are concerned about incursions by leftist guerrillas, as well as right-wing para-military groups from Colombia.

For many years, the Colombian guerrillas have sought supplies and safe haven in small indigenous villages on the Panamanian side of the border, in the densely forested Darien area. Anti-guerrilla para-militaries appear to be entering the same area now in search of the rebels, and to punish those they believe are helping them.

Meantime, the Colombian government complains about clandestine arms shipments over the border and along the coastline. On Sunday, the Colombian armed forces reported the seizure of 81 AK-47 rifles, a large quantity of ammunition and communication equipment in the region near the Panamanian border. The Colombian authorities described the illicit shipment as having come by boat to the Pacific coast from Panama.

The head of Panama's National Police, Carlos Bares, says the Colombians are rushing to judgment.

"If there is evidence that the arms did in fact come from Panama, then the police will investigate, but Colombia has not yet provided any such information to Panama," he said. "However, the Pacific Ocean is very large, and there is no reason to jump to the conclusion that this shipment came from Panama."

Such issues are bound to be high on the agenda when Panamanian and Colombian officials meet in Bogota. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has called on neighboring nations like Panama to help him win the fight against insurgent groups and narcotics traffickers by keeping a closer watch on the borders. But Panama abolished its armed forces after the fall of dictator Manuel Noriega in December, 1989, and now relies on a national police force that may not be a match for the battle-hardened Colombian guerrillas and para-militaries.

The incursion of what witnesses describe as Colombian para-military units over a week ago, and the subsequent murder of four men resulted in the total abandonment of four indigenous villages near the border. Observers here say, this is the first time in Panamanian history something like this has happened in that zone. There are now more than 500 people from the area crammed into a refugee center established by United Nations relief workers and the Catholic Church. Panamanian police officials express outrage over the incident, and vow to stop the Colombian intruders, whom they describe as being criminals, rather than insurgents.