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August 19, 1998

Colombian Rebels Resist U.S. War on Coca


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    By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO

    SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia -- As leftist rebels occupied Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the city of Miraflores 11 days ago, using it as a vantage point to attack a military base across the street, explosions and gunfire rained over the corrugated-tin roof of the hospital. A plane dropped bombs in the distance. Outside teen-agers fell dead and wounded.

    "How do you like our party?" a witness recalled a guerrilla as having said.

    After taking the hospital the rebels searched the rooms for soldiers and police officers, said doctors, nurses and other hospital employees who had fled here to San Jose from Miraflores, a short plane ride away. In occupying the hospital and routing the soldiers and police, the rebels turned it into a target in the battle as well as now, more than a week later.

    "There was panic, terror, because of the continuous explosions," said a nurse's assistant who insisted on anonymity.

    The battle continued for 23 hours, with the doctors and nurses' cleaning, stitching and bandaging the wounded throughout the period. For some the memory of a battle three years ago in which the hospital burned came crashing back.

    In the final days of Ernesto Samper's presidency, which ended last week when Andres Pastrana was sworn as as his successor, rebels launched attacks in 17 of the 32 states in the country, killing an estimated 140 soldiers and police officers, as well as scores of civilians.

    The most stunning attacks were at the police and military bases in Miraflores, which is critical to U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca. In a visit here this week Drug Enforcement Administrator Thomas Constantine pledged U.S. aid to rebuild the bases.

    For the coca growers in Guaviare state, the bases at Miraflores and here at San Jose are symbols of a U.S. war on drugs that, they say, is being fought on their backs. Guaviare produces 65 percent of Colombian coca, or 250 tons of coca paste, from 60,000 acres, the Colombian government said.

    Even before the August offensive, police and soldiers were at odds with residents of Miraflores, a coca-growing enclave carved in the jungle 275 miles southeast of Bogota. Soldiers did not venture out alone after dark. In the middle of the night snipers sometimes shot at the base.

    The hospital workers called Miraflores "an attack foretold," saying that in fliers and statements the rebels had warned civilians to keep a distance from government security installations. But with an unusual meeting last month between Pastrana and the leader of the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, residents had grown optimistic about the prospects for peace and may have thought that the attack had been called off.

    Instead it was fierce. Shooting continued from one evening into the next day, with 40 soldiers and officers killed and 129 taken prisoner. Eventually the hospital workers overcame their terror and sent a delegation to give the rebels an ultimatum, to take the fight outside or the workers would stop treating injuries.

    "They agreed, but they didn't really understand," a hospital administrator said. "They still kept shooting from the grounds of our compound."

    When the shooting stopped, workers said, the rebels took wounded soldiers and officers to the hospital, chiding them for putting up a fight.

    "If you'd have surrendered, none of this would have happened," the guerrillas told them.

    The reproach was taken as an apology. "I think they felt a bit of solidarity with the wounded," said one doctor.

    The danger for the 40 workers who fled here did not end when the guns quieted. Now the workers grapple with an amorphous dread, so choked by violence that they are not sure whom to fear. They insisted on anonymity.

    After the attack the military has been using the hospital freely, the workers said. At first soldiers arrived with weapons, breaking a rule that requires arms be left outside. The soldiers argued that the hospital's neutrality had been broken.

    The soldiers' use of the hospital made health workers fear another guerrilla attack or sniper fire.

    At the same time the workers know that the military or the police could fault them because the rebels had chosen the hospital building to stage their attack. The insurgents also occupied the school at Miraflores in the battle. All the teachers resigned and have been trying to reach San Jose for safety.

    "In Guaviare we're living under three forces, the guerrilla, the paramilitary and the state," said the local Roman Catholic parish priest, the Rev. Jorge Vargas. Colombians, Vargas said, are caught in the middle.

    The whole region and all the military bases in the country are at a state of maximum alert, and there are rumors that another attack on military installations may be coming. In Miraflores shopkeepers pull down the shutters at 5 p.m. for the curfew that begins at 6, and everybody entering and leaving the town goes through government checkpoints.

    With the bases destroyed and guerrillas having seized guns, ammunition, grenades, night-vision equipment and other supplies, soldiers are stationed in foxholes covered by plastic sheets. Asked what the soldiers were protecting, a health-care worker said "themselves."

    The worst part, the refugees say, is maneuvering survival in a war whose combatants are often quick-change artists, looking like a neighbor by day and a killer by night.

    "It looks like it's calm, but beneath the surface, it's very tense," said a hospital administrator.

    In the past military defeats have led to the paramilitary death squads' executing suspected rebels. In the last year, people say, paramilitary groups have infiltrated Guaviare, quietly killing an estimated 100 people in piecemeal massacres called "selective deaths." The most recent was last week, but the families have remained silent.

    "Here there is a law of silence," said Alejandro Ovalles, who has quietly negotiated with the paramilitary groups to stop the killing.

    Although Pastrana has pledged to open peace talks with the rebels in an attempt to end the polarization, a senior military commander in one of the most troubled areas said recently that civilians who did not take sides were suspicious.

    "In this war one cannot be neutral," the commander of the First Division, Gen. Victor Alvarez Vargas, told El Tiempo, the daily in Bogota, in a lengthy interview. He called Colombians who tried to remain neutral "either useful idiots or willing sympathizers of the interests of subversive groups."

    Alvarez's area covers the states of Bolivar, Cesar, Choco, Cordoba, Magdalena and Sucre, as well as the Uraba area, where the strength of right-wing paramilitary groups has soared. Human rights groups say masked paramilitary death squads who appear carrying lists of suspected guerrillas marked for execution are believed to be responsible for 70 percent of the thousands of political killings each year in the country, according to human rights groups.



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