An article yesterday reported incorrectly that Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups have battled the country's armed forces. Although alleged to be involved in the drug trade, the paramilitaries have not fought with the military. (Published 12/15/99)
Left-wing rebels overran a Colombian naval base and police station 15 miles from the Panamanian border, killing at least 45 marines, as well as one policeman, a regional official said today.
The attack on Sunday renewed fears of a growing guerrilla presence along the Panamanian border as the United States prepares to hand over control of the Panama Canal zone to the Panamanian government and withdraw its remaining troops.
Using homemade gas cylinders, mortars and grenades, more than 600 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) overran the police station and the small naval post, where about 115 Colombian marines were stationed in the small town of Jurado, along Colombia's Pacific coast, said Choco governor Luis Gilberto Murillo.
The Rev. Bernardo Nino, the local Roman Catholic priest in Jurado, told government radio today that he had negotiated with the rebels for the release of 53 captured marines and 16 policemen, at least 25 of whom were wounded in the battle. Rebels continued to hold three marines, Nino said. Navy officials, who said that 23 of their personnel had died, asserted that 42 guerrillas were killed in the fighting.
The FARC attack, one of the most successful by the rebels on the Colombian military in months, came just two days before Tuesday's formal ceremony in Panama marking the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panamanian hands, which takes effect formally on Dec. 31.
The U.S. government already has transferred its regional military headquarters, known as the Southern Command, from Panama to Miami and established air bases in the Caribbean and Ecuador to replace Howard Air Force Base in Panama. As the U.S. military has pulled out, U.S. officials and politicians have expressed concern about the Panamanian National Guard's ability to fight off the Colombian guerrillas, who have long been active in the border region.
Panama's foreign minister, Jose Miguel Aleman, today played down Sunday's rebel assault, saying his government would not close its border with Colombia.
U.S. aid to Colombia ballooned to $289 million this year and could reach $500 million next year largely as a result of the 15,000-member FARC's alleged role in the international drug trade. U.S. officials said the rebels make as much as $600 million a year by taxing drug traffickers who export their product from jungle regions like Choco. U.S. legislation prohibits the United States from giving Colombia aid for counterinsurgency purposes, but the increased activity of rebels in drug trafficking has allowed Congress to classify the aid as anti-drug assistance.
Colombian guerrillas have been operating along the Panamanian border for years, running guns from Central America through the Darien--a dense, uninhabited jungle in Panama. Recently, right-wing paramilitary groups--who also have battled the Colombian military and who allegedly are involved in the drug trade as well--pushed the FARC from large portions of the area where Sunday's attack took place.
Eduardo Pizarro, a Colombian political scientist who has written several books on the left-wing rebel group said it may be making a bid to retake the region, known as Uraba, because its other gun-running routes through Ecuador and Venezuela have been blocked. "One of their strategic goals is to recapture Uraba," Pizarro said, "above all so they can launch long military assaults instead of the smaller, traditional guerrilla actions that are more a sign of weakness than strength."
According to the Colombian army, Uraba is home to eight FARC units totaling about 1,600 guerrillas. To combat them, the military has two battalions and three small naval posts like the one attacked in Jurado. More than 1,000 right-wing militiamen are also said to be operating in the area, at times with the support of the Colombian armed forces, according to human rights observers.
After Sunday's clash, military officials sought to highlight the role played by a new 5,000-man rapid deployment force inaugurated earlier this month. The army sent more than 800 men from the unit to Jurado, but a marine who took part in the battle said the troops did not arrive until than 24 hours after the guerrillas attacked. An army representative said poor weather conditions delayed the unit's arrival.
Since Thursday, the FARC has attacked police stations in five Colombian towns, killing 16 policemen and taking another 19 captive. According to the Colombian military, at least two of the attacks originated in a 16,000-square-mile area of southern Colombia, close to the Ecuadoran border, that government troops withdrew from earlier this year to help regenerate government peace talks with the rebels. No agreements have been reached since the two sides began discussing the agenda for the talks in October. Late tonight, there were reports of rebel attacks on three more villages in eastern Colombia.
On two occasions, the guerrillas briefly broke off talks; more recently, military officials have complained that the rebel group is using the area to store weapons, set up drug-processing labs and secret airstrips, and launch attacks.
The most recent rebel offensive came despite pleas by the government for a Christmas cease-fire. Neither the FARC, the smaller National Liberation Army rebel group, nor the right-wing paramilitary groups have responded favorably to the call for a truce between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.