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Colombia's Peasant Insurgency Makes Inroads in Big City

S. America: Urban attacks are on the rise two months after government broke off peace talks with rebels.


BOGOTA, Colombia — Lars Hagg remembers that he had bought an ice cream for his 5-year-old daughter and that they were heading home along the uneven pavement of this capital city's congested Seventh Avenue. Then, as they passed a bookstore, the ground beneath them exploded.

"It all happened in 10 seconds," Hagg recalled. "The bomb was inside a manhole, and we were right on top of it. A gentleman helped me to lift the manhole lid off my child, and then he fainted."

Hagg's injuries were light, but his daughter, Carolina, was rushed to a hospital in critical condition with a fractured skull and a mangled arm.

The April 9 incident was one of a growing number of urban attacks that have pitched urban Colombians into the center of a deepening civil conflict. Two months after the government abandoned peace talks with Marxist rebels in the southern jungles, experts say, the guerrillas are bringing their peasant insurgency north to city streets.

The bombs have ripped through nightclubs and restaurants and torn up city streets, killing and maiming dozens of civilians. Almost all the attacks have been blamed on Colombia's oldest and largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

What's more, military analysts say the violence is likely to escalate in the run-up to May 26 presidential elections as the FARC sends a message of military might to the candidates. Others characterize the rebels' terrorist campaign as a brutal attempt to pressure the state into a new round of negotiations.

But although the FARC's motives remain murky, it is clear that the group's popularity has dipped to new lows.

"What reason can you have for attacking a girl who is 5 years old?" said Hagg, a Swedish jewelry maker who settled in Colombia eight years ago. Doctors expect Carolina to make a full recovery, but her fears linger. She's afraid that a new bomb will kill her father when he's not with her.

"I don't think there is pardon for this," Hagg said.

Even as Hagg was being rushed to the hospital, police deactivated two more bombs made of cooking-gas cylinders just blocks from Bogota's presidential palace.

Two days later, FARC fighters disguised themselves as a bomb squad and kidnapped 13 provincial lawmakers from a legislative assembly in the city of Cali. In what has become common fare for Colombian newscasts, a police guard was shown dragging a bloodied fellow officer from the scene. The injured officer later died of stab wounds.

The Cali kidnappings fit into a scheme of stepped-up political kidnappings. Hoping to swap their high-profile prisoners for jailed field commanders, the rebels are holding independent presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, as well as a state governor abducted last weekend as he led a peace march through the countryside.

Earlier this month, suspected FARC militias also planted a double charge along a strip of nightclubs in Villavicencio, 45 miles southeast of the capital. Police said the first explosion was meant to draw more spectators to the scene before the second bomb blew up. The blasts killed 10 people and injured more than 70.

"Every day, innocent people die," said one woman who was evacuated from an apartment building in Bogota's city center recently when police found an unexploded bomb on a neighbor's patio. She didn't want to be identified because she fears for her life. "What's the use of having a peace process with them [the FARC]? People who have been killing forever won't stop just because you ask them to."

Colombian President Andres Pastrana abruptly ended a 3-year-old peace process with the FARC in February after the rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator who was aboard. The talks had failed to diminish rebel violence in the countryside and were largely seen as a failure.

For Bogota's eccentric philosopher-mayor, Antanas Mockus, the FARC's entry into urban terrorism comes partly as a reaction to the peace negotiations and their collapse. During those talks, veteran rebel commanders had glimpsed life outside their jungle camps, the mayor said, but they weren't tempted to "come down from the mountain."

"I think they came to the edge and looked over the side and said, 'I don't see myself there. I'm too different compared to what's on offer,' " Mockus said. The 17,000-strong guerrilla group recruits most of its fighters among the rural poor and has made repeated demands for agricultural reforms. But the rebels' long-standing involvement in cocaine trafficking and kidnapping has muddied their reputation among ordinary Colombians.

Others say the FARC bombings are a sign of weakness. Flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, the Colombian army appears to have gained a military advantage over the FARC, while illegal right-wing paramilitary fronts carve into rebel territory.

As a result, experts say, the FARC is operating in smaller units and strengthening ties to urban militia members.

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