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9 Colombia troops killed in clash with rebels

The Colombian soldiers are attacked by leftist guerrillas in a transit corridor for drug traffickers and rebels. The assault may be part of a FARC campaign tied to a presidential election.

November 11, 2009|Chris Kraul

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Nine Colombian army soldiers were killed in a bloody confrontation with leftist guerrillas early Tuesday along a well-known transit corridor in southwestern Colombia frequented by drug traffickers and insurgents.

Analysts believe the attack may be part of a campaign by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to step up its activities before next year's presidential election. President Alvaro Uribe, whose policies have set the FARC back on its heels since he took office in 2002, is expected to seek a third term.

The assault also might have been intended to divert the army from its attacks against the FARC leadership, which is thought to be holed up about 70 miles east of the scene of Tuesday's fighting. The military claimed to have killed three members of FARC leader Alfonso Cano's bodyguard in a canyon rain forest over the weekend, the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo reported.

The military dead in Tuesday's attack, whose identities were not available late Tuesday, included one officer, Guillermo Gonzalez, governor of the state of Cauca, said in an interview. The battle occurred near Corinto, a town of 12,000 populated largely by indigenous people 200 miles southwest of Bogota, the capital, in the western foothills of Colombia's central mountain range.

Gonzalez said fighting between rebels with the FARC's Sixth Front and soldiers attached to Colombia's 29th Army Brigade continued throughout Tuesday and resulted in many guerrilla casualties. News reports of as many as 30 rebel dead could not be confirmed.

The rebels attacked the brigade base in Corinto with crude mortars and assaulted army units conducting night patrols around the town, Gonzalez said.

"I think the rebels were preparing to try to take the town," he said.

Gen. Freddy Padilla, the Colombian armed forces' chief of staff, arrived Tuesday at the state capital, Popayan, to consult with Gonzalez. In response to complaints of a rising rebel presence in the region, Uribe had presided over a community meeting Monday in Popayan and promised to send more troops.

The central range has been the scene of several battles between Colombia's armed forces and leftist guerrillas in recent months. Corinto Mayor Gilberto Munoz told a radio reporter that it was the fifth attack on his town by the FARC this year.

The Colombian military command this week claimed to be in hot pursuit of FARC leader Cano, whose headquarters is believed to be east of Corinto on the eastern side of the central range.

Corinto is near a mountain pass used by the FARC and drug traffickers to ship cocaine west toward smugglers' ports on the Pacific coast. The corridor is also used to move arms and supplies east to rebel encampments.

Gonzalez said the increased rebel activity in the area is an attempt to display strength in advance of next year's presidential election.

The rugged, mountainous area is home to many indigenous communities, from which the FARC has had recruiting success.

The native communities frequently complain of being caught in the crossfire when the rebels and army clash.

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Kraul is a special correspondent.

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