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Local Colombian Leader Blocks International Aid Caravan - 2001-08-08

In Colombia, international humanitarian relief efforts have come face-to-face with the country's politics of war. An international caravan carrying three tons of food, medicine, and school supplies destined for poor rural families was stopped in its tracks by a local leader. The supplies have become a pawn in a violent conflict over the initiation of peace talks between the government and left-wing guerrillas.

More than 60 foreign relief workers are stuck in a small riverside town in central Colombia. Local leaders have angrily refused to allow them to transport three-tons of aid supplies to poor communities in the surrounding areas.

"We want to know exactly where this caravan is going," said local leader Rafael Ramos. "We have questions about who they are planning to help."

The suspicious reaction of local leaders to the foreign aid is not entirely surprising.

This is sensitive territory, a region of central Colombia, known as South of Bolivar. For the past year, the government has been trying to create a demilitarized zone there to allow peace negotiations with the ELN, the country's second-largest left-wing guerrilla group.

The region used to be an ELN stronghold. But recently, right-wing paramilitary squads have grabbed control in much of the region.

Many local residents oppose the idea of hosting the peace talks. They have blocked highways and held protest marches. Although authorities believe much of the resistance is fomented by the paramilitaries, who would be pushed out of the area if it is demilitarized.

Fighting between guerrillas and paramilitaries in the region has left more than 16,000 people homeless. The international relief workers say, these are the people they want to help.

But Elizabeth Huget, one of the international workers, explained that the leaders who oppose the peace talks are the same people who are blocking the humanitarian aid.

Some officials believe local leaders do not want the foreign aid getting in, because it could sway public opinion about the demilitarized zone. The European Union has also promised multi-million-dollar projects in the region if the peace talks go forward.

But guerrilla leaders are not helping the cause. Tuesday, the Colombian government broke off talks with ELN leaders, arguing the rebels were being so obstinate, they could make no progress towards starting the peace process.