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Nine Killed in Colombia Fighting

Date: Thu, 17 Oct 2002

Nine Killed in Colombia Fighting
.c The Associated Press

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) - More than 1,000 police and soldiers backed by
helicopter gunships stormed a violence-plagued neighborhood in Colombia's
second largest city Wednesday, exchanging heavy fire with leftist rebels.
Authorities said at least nine people were killed, including a 16-year-old

The security forces were trying to oust leftist rebels of the Armed Command
of the People from the Comuna 13 neighborhood, police said. The rebel group
is allied with the National Liberation Army.

Four soldiers, one police officer, three rebels and the teenager died in the
fighting, according to Medellin's emergency director, Rafael Rincon.

Another 20 were wounded, among them 14 civilians, he said. Rincon was worried
there were more casualties in the neighborhood.

“We are very concerned,” said Rincon, as he stood at the edge of the
neighborhood amid tents that had been erected and filled with stretchers for
more possible wounded. Half a dozen ambulances waited nearby.

During the operation, Fernando Molina, a 47-year-old businessman who had been
kidnapped on Oct. 6, was rescued, the army said. Seven suspected rebels were
arrested in the rescue.

Some 30 residents, most of them children, fled in the early afternoon,
holding a white sheet up so security forces would not fire on them as they
crossed between the warring sides. But despite the danger, buses headed up
into the neighborhood which lies on a hill overlooking the city. Half a dozen
police searched the passengers by a wall covered with rebel graffiti.

“It falls to us to live in these dangerous times,” said Alvaro Quiceno, a
salesman, as he returned to his seat on the bus. Asked why he was returning
in the middle of the fighting, he said “where else do I go?” adding his
family lived up there.

Among those confirmed dead was the suspected commander of the rebel group,
known by his alias “Mazo,” Army Gen. Mario Montoya said.

As night fell, the army and police displayed for journalists 15 rifles, two
grenade launchers and three Uzi sub-machine guns that were seized in the
operation. Montoya said one army special forces officer, two regular soldiers
and one Medellin police officer were killed. It was not immediately possible
to reconcile the discrepancy between Montoya's account and that of Rincon.
Seven soldiers were wounded, Montoya said.

He said the operation will continue until the leftist militia is driven out
of the sprawling neighborhood, adding that the fighting was difficult.

“These are labyrinths. A concrete jungle,” Montoya said. The fighting was
especially dangerous because the militia was firing down the many narrow
streets that wind through the neighborhood, he said. The civilian population
has been asked to remain indoors.

National police wearing bullet proof vests and carrying assault rifles
searched everyone going into and out of the area. Reporters were not being
allowed entry to the neighborhood, where some 130,000 of Medellin's 2.5
million residents live.

Medellin mayor Luis Perez said security forces had received orders directly
from President Alvaro Uribe to continue the operation until the neighborhood
was under control.

“The order that the president has given is that no neighborhood in the city
of Medellin can be in the hands of anyone besides the citizens and government
security forces,” Perez said.

Residents are accustomed to violence.

“You normally hear shooting, day and night,” said Joaquina Builes, 55, a
20-year resident of the neighborhood. “What you have to do is go farther
inside, not stand near windows.”

For the past several months, rebels and illegal right-wing militias have been
fighting for control of Comuna 13 and several other outlying neighborhoods in
Medellin, about 155 miles northwest of Bogota. Government forces have
periodically entered the fray and several civilians have died in the

The urban combat marks a new phase in Colombia's long-simmering war, which
has generally been fought in the countryside.

Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city, has a history of extreme violence
going back to the drug wars of the 1980s and early 1990s when the city was
home to the late drug king Pablo Escobar.

Some 3,500 people, most of them civilians, die every year in Colombia's
38-year civil war.
10/16/02 23:09 EDT

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