ISSUE #423, MARCH 8, 1998
339 LAFAYETTE ST., NEW YORK, NY 10012 (212) 674-9499


At least 28 civilians were killed in a Colombian army bombing raid against 
leftist guerrillas in the rural area of El Billar creek, in the southern 
Colombian municipality of Cartagena del Chaira, local authorities reported 
on Mar. 6. Other reports said that four civilians were killed and eight 
wounded. The four confirmed victims were members of a campesino family 
killed when an army bomb landed on their home some 30 km north of Billar. 
Jesus Ramirez, government secretary of Cartagena del Chaira, told the 
press that the number of civilian dead was reported by a special 
commission sent by the mayor's office to the bombed area. Colombian Air 
Force (FAC) Commander Gen. Fabio Zapata insisted that no civilians have 
been affected by the army operations. [El Diario-La Prensa (NY) 3/7/98 from 
EFE, AP; El Colombiano (Medellin) 3/6/98; Clarin (Buenos Aires) 3/7/98 
from Reuter; Cable News Network en Espanol 3/7/98 from Reuter] 

Some 400 rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- 
People's Army (FARC-EP) have been fighting army troops in the area of El 
Billar creek since Mar. 2. In a Mar. 5 press release issued from the 
"Mountains of Caqueta," the FARC-EP Southern Bloc Command explained that 
since 4:30 pm on Mar. 2 its forces have been carrying out the military 
operation "Opening Roads for the New Colombia" against 228 soldiers from 
the 52nd Battalion of the Third Mobile Brigade of the counter-guerrilla 
forces. According to the communique, 80 army soldiers have been killed, 
more than 30 are wounded, 43 are captive and the remainder are fleeing the 
area. The army admitted on Mar. 6 that the number of deaths could be more 
than 100, but claimed that the losses were split evenly between army 
soldiers and rebels. The army has refused to allow members of the 
Colombian Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross 
(CICR) to carry out rescue and humanitarian support work in the area. In 
press releases on Mar. 4 and 5, the FARC-EP's Southern Bloc Command 
specifically requested the presence of the national and international Red 
Cross to provide aid for army casualties. 

On Mar. 3 a thousand military troops were dispatched from the Tres 
Esquinas army base to support the Third Mobile Brigade, and the FAC 
provided several AC-47 and OV-10 planes to bomb the area, along with a 
group of MI-17 and Black Hawk helicopters to transport reinforcements to 
the combat zone and pick up the dead and wounded. Army commander Gen. 
Mario Hugo Galan went to the area to lead the operations. The combat zone 
is extremely rainy and is located far from the military's logistical support 
posts; the only way of reaching the zone is via the Caguan River, or by 
having helicopters land on small plots of cleared land. [EC 3/5/98, 3/6/98; 
FARC-EP Southern Bloc Command Press Release 3/4/98, 3/5/98, posted on 
Internet by the FARC-EP International Commission; Clarin 3/4/98]

On Mar. 6 President Ernesto Samper Pizano visited the Tres Esquinas 
military base to raise morale among the troops. "In wars, we win and we 
lose," said Samper, speaking to a contingent of 150 troops about to take off 
for the combat zone. "It's clear that we've received a hard blow." [El Nuevo 
Herald (Miami) 3/7/98 from AP] Samper said that the reports of 28 
civilians killed in army bombing raids were not confirmed, but he 
apologized in advance if these reports were true. [Notimex 3/6/98] 

On Mar. 6, as part of its offensive aimed at blocking the Mar. 8 legislative 
elections, some 120 FARC members set up a roadblock 50 km from the 
capital, Bogota. For five hours the rebels held captive 500 vehicles, 
"inviting" the drivers and passengers not to vote. One police agent was 
killed. [Clarin 3/7/98 from Reuter; ED-LP 3/7/98 from AP]

After facing its worst military defeat in decades, the Colombian 
government is consulting the Constitutional Court about the possibility of 
declaring a state of siege to reestablish order in the country, according to 
Reuter. [El Universal (Caracas, Venezuela) 3/6/98]

Despite the military offensive, the government insisted that legislative 
elections will take place throughout Colombia as scheduled on Mar. 8. 
Colombia's 20.7 million eligible voters must choose from among 6,512 
candidates representing 64 different political organizations to elect 102 
senators and 161 members of the House of Representatives for four year 
terms. Analysts predict a high rate of abstention. Voting is not obligatory in 
Colombia, but the government gives benefits to voters such as a half day off 
work with pay; preference for acceptance into university and for 
government jobs; reduction in the required time for military service; and 
access to a government housing program. [CNN en Espanol 3/7/98 from 

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