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Colombia begins aerial bombardment of rebel territory after president ends peace talks, media reports

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ The Colombian military began aerial bombardment of a vast rebel territory early Thursday, following the president's decision to cancel peace talks and reclaim the region from the guerrillas, national media reported.

President Andres Pastrana declared Colombia's three-year peace process over Wednesday night, just hours after guerrillas hijacked a domestic airliner and kidnapped a senator traveling on the flight. Pastrana set a midnight deadline for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to abandon the zone in southern Colombia.

Just before dawn Thursday, reporters interviewed a pilot who said he had just returned from a bombing mission. The air force pilot, who was not identified, said he was prepared to continue bombarding the zone as long as was necessary, according to a broadcast on RCN television.

Pastrana's announcement was greeted enthusiastically in Bogota, where drivers honked their horns to show their approval.

``This peace process didn't make sense because of the actions of the guerrillas,'' said Jaime Tapia, a shopkeeper. ``It doesn't matter if there is a war. We are already at war.''

Pastrana's decision came shortly after four rebels dressed in civilian clothes and armed with handguns forced an Aires airlines flight to land in southern Colombia.

Camouflage-clad rebels met the plane on a two-lane highway near the town of Hobo and whisked away the hijackers and Sen. Jorge Gechen Turbay, 50, president of the Colombian Senate's peace commission. The remaining 29 passengers and crew were freed unharmed.

The highly organized hijacking infuriated a nation already fed up with peace talks that have done little to bring an end to Colombia's 38-year-old civil war. It also appeared to be the last straw for Pastrana.

``It's not possible to sign agreements on one side while putting guns to the heads of innocent people on the other,'' Pastrana said.

The FARC issued a statement saying Pastrana's decision to end the peace process would only lead to more bloodshed, according to a report by Caracol television.

``With this rupture, the government shows yet again it is dedicated to war,'' the brief statement said.

Television reporters inside the Switzerland-sized territory said the rebels had largely disappeared from view. Broadcast footage showed many residents leaving the area. Phone lines to the site of the talks were cut shortly after Pastrana's announcement.

Late Wednesday, the military began preparations to retake the zone. Gen. Euclides Sanchez, the second in command of the army, was named coordinator of the operation to enter the vast area.

Shortly after midnight Thursday, army tanks could be seen moving through the streets of Bogota, and surveillance flights were sent over the zone, according to Colombia's main newspaper, El Tiempo.

Pastrana, who had staked his presidency on bringing an end to Colombia's war, insisted that the three-year effort toward making peace with the FARC had not been wasted. He said the military, which has received training and equipment from the United States, was stronger than it had ever been. And he said the process was proof that the FARC could not negotiate in good faith.

``Today, the guerrillas have been unmasked and have shown their true face, the face of senseless violence,'' he said.

Halfway through his speech, Pastrana showed video clips of destruction attributed to the rebels: bridges that had been blown up, a homemade bomb in a church, buildings destroyed by explosions, a child's body lying under a sheet. Then he showed aerial photographs of airstrips and highways, which he said the FARC had built inside the government-granted territory to further their drug trafficking activities.

Gechen Turbay, the senator who was kidnapped in the hijacking, is a member of a prominent political clan that has seen several of its members killed and kidnapped by the FARC. Four other members of Congress are also being held by the rebels.

Colombia's war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against government troops and an outlawed paramilitary. Roughly 3,500 people, most of them civilians, die every year in the fighting.

The United States provides military aid to Colombia, mostly to wipe out drug crops. The Bush administration has asked Congress to authorize $98 million to train and arm a Colombian army brigade to protect a vital oil pipeline from rebel attacks.

The U.S. government has labeled the FARC a terrorist organization, leaving open the possibility it may later provide direct counterinsurgency aid.
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