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Monday, March 05, 2007

Heavy combat kills 18 in rural Colombia

PUERTO RICO, Colombia, - Seven Colombian soldiers and 11 guerrillas were killed over the weekend in the heaviest combat in recent months in a remote southern jungle area, a top military official said on Sunday.

Commander of the military's Omega joint task force, Gen. Alejandro Navas, said fighting with a large column of rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC broke out early Saturday in the town of Puerto Rico in Meta province, about 186 miles (300 km) south of Bogota.

"We recovered 11 bodies, which is nothing compared to the number who went down. We know from observations and the blood trails, it was more," Navas said, showing reporters rebel bodies in black body bags at a local army base in Meta.

Since his first election in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in South America, has sent his armed forces to retake towns and villages once controlled by the FARC and forced the rebels back into jungle hide-outs.

His U.S.-backed campaign has reduced violence from the four-decade-old conflict, but the guerrillas are still a potent force helped by revenues from the huge illicit drug trade that makes Colombia the world's top producer of cocaine.

Uribe was re-elected last year thanks to his security crackdown, but critics say his offensive has failed to curb rights abuses and control violence by paramilitary gangs who once fought the guerrillas, but who gave up their guns in a peace deal with the government.
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