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89 Dead as Siege Ends in Colombia : Guerrillas Routed in Bloody Battle at Justice Palace

November 08, 1985|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — In a bloody final assault, Colombian troops and police officers Thursday overpowered a guerrilla commando group holed up in the national Palace of Justice, ending a siege that lasted 27 hours and left at least 89 people dead.

The president of the Supreme Court, seven other high court magistrates and an undetermined number of civilians who had been held hostage by the guerrillas were among those killed, military authorities said.

At least 40 of the dead were said to be guerrillas of the April 19 Movement, including several of the leftist guerrilla organization's top commanders. Unconfirmed reports said some of the guerrillas committed suicide rather than surrender.

"The battle is over," declared Col. Alfonso Plazas, an army commander. Plazas said more than 100 people were killed, other army officers set the death toll at 89 and the newspaper El Espectador said 94 bodies had been counted.

Guerrillas Captured

Several guerrillas were unofficially reported captured before and during the final assault Thursday afternoon. Officers emphasized that they repeatedly promised not to harm the holdout guerrillas if they surrendered but that the rebels answered with gunfire.

"They didn't want to give up," said Carlos Martinez, president of the Colombian Red Cross.

Thirteen members of the security forces were reported killed, including an army captain, an army lieutenant and a police lieutenant. About 20 other policemen and soldiers were wounded.

Several high court judges and other civilians were also wounded. By late Thursday, two judges had not been accounted for.

The heavily armed guerrillas shot their way into the Palace of Justice, facing Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota, shortly before midday Wednesday. Security forces counterattacked within minutes, laying siege to the modern, four-story building.

Armored Cars Deployed

As the battle progressed, the government deployed armored cars with cannon and machine guns, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and dynamite.

President Belisario Betancur's government refused to negotiate with the rebels.

"The government could not negotiate what is not negotiable, such as the respectability of our institutions," Betancur said in a televised speech Thursday night. "Nothing must be done under threat."

He said he personally made all decisions in the government's counterattack against the guerrillas, and he emphasized that they were offered guarantees of safety and impartial trials if they would give up peacefully.

Betancur placed full blame on the guerrillas for what he called "an absurd, indescribable tragedy."

By early Thursday afternoon, security forces had retaken most of the building and had rescued more than 200 people who had been trapped or held hostage inside. The surviving guerrillas were still holding between 30 and 40 hostages on the building's northern side.

Shortly after 2 p.m., government forces broke into a stairwell where the guerrillas were concentrated. An explosion rocked the building, and heavy gunfire was heard outside for several minutes.

By 2:30 p.m., security forces were evacuating freed hostages. The evacuation of bodies began later and continued until dark. Official reports said more than 50 bodies were found on the building's burned-out fourth floor, which was set afire in fighting Wednesday night. Much of the building was said to be gutted by fire, and many court records were destroyed.

Among the bodies recovered were those of Supreme Court President Alfonso Reyes. The Palace of Justice is headquarters for the Supreme Court.

Guerrilla Leader Slain

Military officers said that guerrilla leader Andres Almarales shot Reyes to death when troops started to storm the guerrillas' last pocket of resistance. Almarales himself was killed shortly thereafter, along with eight other guerrilla leaders.

The radio station RCN quoted government sources as saying that some of the guerrillas committed suicide in a bathroom during the final assault.

Among the other rebels killed was Luis Otero, who planned the 1980 seizure by guerrillas of the Dominican Republic Embassy in Bogota. In that attack, the guerrillas held more than 40 hostages, including 15 ambassadors, for more than two months. The government reportedly paid a $1-million ransom for the freedom of those hostages.

The April 19 Movement, known as M-19, signed a peace agreement with the government in August, 1984. The pact included a cease-fire and government commitments to launch agrarian reform and political reforms.

Agreement Renounced

Last June, the M-19 renounced the agreement, saying that it had been broken by the government.

After seizing the Palace of Justice on Wednesday, the guerrillas sent a list of initial demands to Bogota radio stations. One demand was that Betancur come to the occupied Supreme Court for a "judgment" on what he has done to bring peace to Colombia. The guerrillas said they wanted to start a public debate on the peace process.

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