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As rebels turn sights on civilian targets, Colombia's war seen increasingly as terrorism

Updated:
(FLORENCIA, Colombia) - Car bombs. Blown bridges. Felled power lines. Explosions at water reservoirs.

Since the sudden collapse of peace talks last month, Colombia's long guerrilla war has been veering toward terrorism - testing the resolve of the country's 40 million citizens and the ability of its U.S.-backed military to defend it from the rebels.

The army of about 75,000 soldiers is already stretched thin around this country, studded with snowcapped Andean mountains and blanketed by thick Amazonian jungle.

Rebels have blacked out wide sections of the country by dynamiting electrical substations and transmission lines, have blown up bridges and cut off towns from resupply by threatening to seize and burn vehicles found on the roads.

``It's impossible to have a soldier guarding every energy tower, every stretch of pipeline, every aqueduct and every public building,'' President Andres Pastrana told Colombians on Thursday.

Pastrana has asked Washington to allow U.S.-donated combat helicopters to be used directly against the rebels, and for U.S.-trained counternarcotics troops to attack them head on. But the Bush administration needs Congress' go-ahead to do that, and has not asked for it yet.

Analysts - and even Colombian military commanders - say the security forces are woefully under-equipped and undermanned to confront the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; a smaller rebel faction and a right-wing paramilitary group.

Army Gen. Henry Medina says only about 2.5 percent of the national budget is spent on beefing up the military, and that 9 percent is needed. Budget constraints and the foreign debt have made increased spending difficult.

But that may change if the FARC brings the war to the cities and the country's leaders suddenly have no electricity or water or are threatened by bomb attacks.

In the countryside, the rebels have seemingly attacked at will, although government troops did kill a local rebel commander in fighting south of Bogota last week. The army announced Sunday afternoon that 15 FARC guerrillas had been killed in combat around the country over the past two days.

The army has been criticized for its gingerly reoccupation of the FARC's former safe haven in southern Colombia. The first troops didn't reach Uribe, one of the five towns inside the zone, until Saturday - nine days after Pastrana called off the negotiations and sent in the military.

Only 20 minutes outside Florencia, a southern provincial capital, a FARC bomb turned a bridge into crumbled concrete and twisted iron bars.

Further up the road, a lone army sentinel paced another bridge over a boulder-strewn river, smoking cigarettes and checking for snipers on a nearby hill. A group of troops crouched in a nearby grove, cooking on camping stoves and cleaning their rifles.

Echoing Pastrana's words, one of them said he wasn't too optimistic about stopping bombings in a country the size of France, Spain, and Portugal combined.

``Terrorism can be done by only a few,'' said Pvt. Jhon Jairo Martinez. ``It only takes two people to blow up a bridge.''

Gen. Gustavo Porras of the army's 12th Brigade in Florencia resigned his command last week for the brigade's failure to prevent rebel sabotage around Florencia - and the rebels' downing of a key bridge on the edge of the FARC's former safe haven.

``The army is good at fighting guerrillas, but we don't have the resources to fight against terrorism,'' he said.

Ironically, the rebels' turn to attacks against the civilian infrastructure could end up tipping the balance in favor of more U.S. military aid to Colombia when U.S. lawmakers weigh the decision. The U.S. government already considers Colombia's three main illegal armed groups as terrorist organizations.

The rebels have appeared to misjudge a widespread determination to move against terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington by Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network.

They were apparently taken by surprise when Pastrana broke off three years of fruitless peace talks on Feb. 20, after the insurgents hijacked a civilian airliner and kidnapped a senator who was aboard. Pastrana quickly denounced the operation as terrorism.
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