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Colombian President Visits Former Rebel Town - 2002-02-24

Colombian President Andres Pastrana Saturday visited the main town of the former rebel-controlled demilitarized zone in southern Colombia, just hours after government troops occupied it. Mr. Pastrana blamed the leftist guerrillas for sabotaging the talks to end the country's 38-year conflict.

Mr. Pastrana arrived by helicopter Saturday to San Vicente del Caguan the largest town in the enclave that was ceded to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, three years ago as an incentive for holding peace talks.

Government troops had earlier entered the town, as part of an offensive launched Thursday to retake the rebel safe haven after Mr. Pastrana broke off peace talks and dissolved the zone. The Colombian leader acted after FARC guerrillas Wednesday hijacked a plane and forced it to land near the enclave, and then fled with a Colombian Senator as hostage.

On Saturday, Mr. Pastrana blamed the FARC for sabotaging the peace talks saying rebels had staged more than 117 attacks in recent weeks. Addressing a crowd of several thousand people, he said it was the guerrillas not his government that decided to walk away from the negotiating table.

Security was tight as Mr. Pastrana spoke, sharpshooters were deployed and U-S-made Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. Soldiers earlier in the day tore down rebel flags and banners that had been put up throughout the town during the guerrilla occupation.

Some 13,000 troops have been deployed to retake the former rebel safe haven, which is about the size of Switzerland. Military aircraft have staged hundreds of airstrikes on rebel targets.

Mr. Pastrana agreed create the zone in late 1998 as a rebel pre-condition for opening talks to end Colombia's decades-long conflict. However, for the past three years, the peace negotiations made little progress and the FARC used the 42,000 kilometer enclave to build up its forces and launch attacks elsewhere in Colombia. The guerrillas also held kidnap victims in the zone and allowed drug cultivation and trafficking to flourish.

By the time Mr. Pastrana dissolved the enclave most Colombians had become disillusioned with the government's peace efforts, and few supported maintaining the FARC zone.

The FARC, which says it is fighting in the name of Colombia's poor, said in a communique Friday it is willing to resume negotiations with a new government.

Presidential elections will be held in late May, and Mr. Pastrana will step down in August. His government is continuing peace talks with a second smaller leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. Those talks are being held in Cuba.

In a related development Saturday, a Colombian Presidential candidate was reported missing near the former FARC-controlled zone. Former Senator Ingrid Betancourt left the southern city of Florencia for San Vicente del Caguan but had not been heard from by nightfall. There are reported to be rebel roadblocks along the route and the Colombian government said it had warned Ms Betancourt not to make the trip because it was too dangerous.