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25 Colombian Troops Die in Battles With Guerrillas

June 26, 2005|From Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia — Leftist rebels killed at least 25 soldiers in two clashes Saturday in Colombia, producing the worst death toll in a single day for the military since President Alvaro Uribe came to power three years ago with a pledge to crush the guerrillas. Eighteen soldiers were reported missing.

Fighting broke out in southern Putumayo state when as many as 300 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ambushed an army convoy during an attack targeting several oil wells, said Gen. Carlos Lemus, inspector general of the Colombian army.

He said at least 19 soldiers had been killed and 18 had gone missing during the battles near Puerto Asis, 330 miles southwest of Bogota. Putumayo state is a major cocaine-producing area.

"We were engaged in very heavy fighting at dawn and called in air support," Lemus said at a news conference. "The attack was directed against petroleum installations."

Helicopter gunships strafed rebel positions while warplanes swooped down to drop bombs, he said. He said the rebels had suffered casualties but was unable to provide details.

Also Saturday, government troops launched an offensive to dislodge leftist rebels blocking a road in northeast Colombia, leaving at least six soldiers dead, local army commander Gen. Edgar Ceballos said.

"We initiated combat against FARC units ... with the aim of neutralizing a terrorist act to cut off the road between Ocana and Sardinata," about 250 miles northeast of Bogota near Venezuela, Ceballos said.

Ceballos said the army had gained the upper hand there, but it was unclear whether the rebels had fled and the road reopened.

Since the start of the year, the FARC has launched some of its boldest attacks on the military, killing more than 130 soldiers.

The ferocity of the FARC attacks has led many observers to question Uribe's claims that the rebels have gotten weaker since he ordered a military buildup upon coming to office in 2002.

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