BOGOTA, Colombia — The Colombian army is poised for a possible attack on the headquarters of the country's oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group after a week of fighting that killed about 100 people.
Colombian troops are digging into a southeastern stretch of jungle after an offensive last week in which 400 soldiers captured a main camp belonging to the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. Officials have still not determined the battle's final death toll, but radio reports said two soldiers and at least 35 rebels were killed.
The offensive brought the army within 15 miles of the rebels' headquarters. Defense Minister Oscar Botero said Friday that the army might attack the headquarters despite the FARC's reiterated offer to open peace talks with the government.
President Cesar Gaviria tacitly approved the attack when he said troops could go after the guerrillas without first consulting him. The administration had previously restrained the army while it made efforts to draw the FARC, with its estimated 5,000 combatants, into negotiations.
Bombing of the headquarters' support camp by U.S.-provided A-37 jets began Nov. 6. As army troops were overrunning the camp, the FARC and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, began a series of attacks that left scores dead throughout the country.
As a result of the violence, Gaviria forswore negotiations with the FARC and the ELN until they "demonstrate their desire for peace through action, not words."
The government demands that rebels declare a unilateral cease-fire as a condition for negotiations. The guerrillas maintain that the cease-fire should be bilateral.
Three other guerrilla groups have suspended armed actions while they talk peace with officials. The largest of the organizations, the People's Liberation Army, plans to lay down its arms in December.
Only one leftist guerrilla group has disarmed and transformed itself into a political party under the government's peace plan. The Gaviria administration has held up the group, the M-19, as proof that former rebels can participate in politics.
The M-19's leader, Antonio Navarro, won third place in August presidential elections and served as health minister under Gaviria. He resigned to run in December elections for a seat in an assembly to rewrite Colombia's constitution. Polls show the M-19 leading traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, in the race for 70 assembly seats.
But there were signs last week that the peace process with the M-19 was in trouble. Navarro said Friday that the M-19 had discovered a plot to assassinate him. His statement came after days of grumbling about the former guerrillas by army officials and traditional politicians.
Stirring up anger at the M-19 is a recent decision by the attorney general's office to punish an army general who fought the rebel group in November, 1985, when it took over the Palace of Justice.
Eleven supreme court justices were among the 95 people killed when the army, under the command of Gen. Jesus Arias Cabrales, attacked the building.
The attorney general's office ordered the retired general's symbolic dismissal, ruling that he failed to protect hostages held by the M-19.
Army officials and members of Colombia's Congress denounced the decision as grossly unfair. They said that a loyal general was being punished for the incident while the M-19, which instigated the bloodshed, was receiving political laurels.