by Yadira Ferrer
(IPS) BOGOTA --
350,000 people are under siege in southern Colombia from an upsurge in fighting between the leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, a report by state security and intelligence agencies warned.
Analysts, meanwhile, say the latest outbreak of fighting in the south is just a preview of the consequences that can be expected from Pres. Andres Pastrana's Plan Colombia, to go into effect next month with the forcible eradication of coca and opium poppy crops, and heavy support from the United States.
There are serious food shortages in the southern part of Putumayo, where the main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the paramilitary umbrella group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are involved in combat, the security and intelligence services reported.
An estimated 17,000 people have fled to neighboring Ecuador, where authorities have ordered the San Miguel international bridge to be closed, according to the report.
For 53 days, the FARC has blocked the roads running in and out of Putumayo, and banned internal movements by vehicles and people in the department, in order to keep the paramilitaries from moving around in the area.
The AUC, meanwhile, is attempting to consolidate its hold over the Lower Putumayo, a coca-growing region.
In Putumayo "the current situation was not hard to anticipate, given past events and the history of the region," independent researcher Ligia Galvis told IPS.
The FARC and AUC, two key actors in Colombia's decades-old civil strife, "are jockeying for strategic positions for what is to come" (the Plan Colombia), said Galvis. And it is civil society that pays the costs, she added.
The projected cost of the Plan Colombia, introduced by Pastrana and touted as a "development and anti-drug strategy," is $7.5 billion, $1.3 billion of which has been pledged by the United States.
Putumayo, 24,000 sq kms in size, is one of the regions most vulnerable to armed confrontations and drug trafficking activity.
report by the state security agencies indicated that the towns of the Lower Putumayo, like Puerto Asís and Orito, have been paralyzed. The insurgents have issued death threats to local residents, and prohibited them from receiving food air-dropped by government planes.
The agencies also stated that in the areas controlled by the AUC, the paramilitaries are blocking roads and have threatened to kill anyone identified as a supposed "guerrilla collaborator."
"Civilians have been frequently caught in the cross-fire of armed clashes with the insurgents," the report added.
Civic groups are planning a march on Bogota this week, to demand that the government come up with solutions for the humanitarian crisis.
Commander Mario Montoya, in charge of military operations in southern Colombia, reported that an army offensive against FARC camps where the rebels stored provisions and ammunition had left 20 guerrillas dead over the weekend.
Presidential peace commissioner Camilo Gomez and FARC leaders sat down at the negotiating table in San Vicente del Caguan, in the Switzerland-sized area in south-central Colombia demilitarized for the peace talks, which have been going on for nearly two years.
The government hopes the guerrillas' latest activity in Putumayo will be discussed in the new round of talks.
In another southern department, Narino, the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- Colombia's second-largest rebel group -- blocked the road joining Pasto, the provincial capital, with the Pacific port city of Tumaco.
The governor of Narino reported that the roadblock left several towns on the Pacific coast without food, and has kept some 2,000 people from travelling.
Analysts say the ELN's current offensive, which has included attacks on local residents and kidnappings of civilians, is part of its attempt to pressure the army to withdraw from an area in northern Colombia where it wants to hold a "national convention," in which delegates of civil society and the guerrillas would draw up the agenda for peace talks between the ELN and the government.
November 14, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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