Colombia Rebels Kill 47 On Panama Border

Colombia Rebels Kill 47 On Panama Border
Posted by FoM on December 13, 1999 at 15:09:16 PT
By Karl Penhaul
Source: Reuters International
Hundreds of communist rebels rained machine-gun fire and home-made missiles on a Navy base on Colombia's border with Panama, killing at least 45 Marines, one policeman and a civilian, authorities said on Monday.
Some 600 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas launched the attack on the Pacific coast town of Jurado early on Sunday, two days before a formal ceremony in Panama to mark the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal on Dec. 31.U.S. military authorities have warned that Colombian guerrillas, who hold sway in the frontier zone, could launch attacks inside Panama and even on the Canal itself once the U.S. pullout was complete.Sunday's clash was one of the heaviest in more than a year and was thought to be the worst defeat suffered by a Navy unit in Colombia's long-running war that has claimed more than 35,000 lives in just the last 10 years."We have just held a security council meeting. The result of that is that in Jurado there are 45 Marines dead, including a lieutenant, and a policeman. The situation is controlled at the moment and the guerrilla force is no longer in the town," Nelson Murillo, governor of Choco province, told reporters.Parish priest Bernardo Nino said a civilian had also died.ARMS, DRUG SMUGGLING ROUTE TO PANAMAJurado in Choco province -- some 15 miles (25 km) or 20 minutes by speedboat from Panama -- is a staging post on a key arms and drug smuggling route used by narco-traffickers, guerrillas and ultra-right paramilitary fighters.Senior Navy sources in Bogota did not immediately confirm Murillo's report of the death toll but said the bodies of 23 Marines, including the base commander, had been recovered and at least 20 others were still missing Monday afternoon.Another 27 wounded Marines, from a total 147-man detachment, were airlifted to Bogota for hospital treatment.On Sunday a battleship sailed into the combat zone and shelled rebel positions on shore but it was not clear if any guerrillas had died in the exchange, a spokesman for the Navy's Pacific Command said.The officer said a Marine battalion and 700 counterinsurgency troops from the newly inaugurated Rapid Deployment Force, backed by helicopter gunships, had now landed in Jurado but that the FARC unit had retreated.Parish priest Nino said the rebels had captured three Navy officers.The FARC holds more than 350 security force members captured in combat over the last 18 months and is using them as bargaining chips to try and win the release of hundreds of their jailed comrades."We were attacked by 600 or 700 guerrillas with gas cylinders and bursts of M-60 (light machine-gun) fire," Mauricio Perdomo, one of the Marines who survived the attack, told the Caracol radio news station."Alongside me, 14 people died ... . Others were killed at the port but I don't know exactly how many. The guerrillas didn't kill us all because they said they had come for our weapons," he added.ATTACKS THREATEN REGIONAL STABILITYThe attack coincided with other clashes over the weekend in northwest and western Colombia. In San Luis, in neighboring Antioquia province, rebels killed eight police and two town hall officials early on Sunday.The raid on Jurado highlighted U.S. fears that Colombia's three-decade-old war is jeopardizing regional stability.Earlier this year, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Army's Southern Command, warned the Panamanian Defense Forces would be powerless to stop rebel incursions into Panama once U.S. forces pulled out of the Canal zone."This is a conflict that is spilling across borders and there's nothing Panama can do to stop it," Cynthia Watson, assistant dean, of the U.S. Army's Washington-based National War College told Reuters by telephone."The biggest threat is instability. The FARC has still not moved into Panama in a meaningful (military) way," she added.The FARC is engaged in slow-moving peace talks with the government but has not declared a cease-fire. Last month, President Andres Pastrana called on all factions to observe a month-long Christmas truce but neither the guerrillas nor paramilitary gangs have given a response. Updated 4:14 PM ET December 13, 1999 1999 Reuters Limited. Copyright  1995-1999 Excite Inc.Related Article:Colombian Rebel Storm Marine Base On Panama Border-12/13/99
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