Colombian army launches offensive in rebel-blockaded Putumayo province

BOGOTA, Colombia - The army said Monday that it has killed 22 rebels in a campaign to wrest control of a southern cocaine-producing province from rebels who have paralyzed it with blockades for weeks.

Supplies of food and medicine in Putumayo have dwindled since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began barring traffic in the province in late September.

Vehicles violating roadblocks have been torched by the rebels, who have been battling both government troops and right-wing paramilitary gunmen, many of them former soldiers.

In a sign it is moving to break the rebel stranglehold, the army said a convoy of 18 trucks - escorted by combat helicopters and guarded by some 600 soldiers - arrived Sunday in one of Putumayo's main cities, Puerto Asis, with loads of supplies.

Because of the blockade, the military had been delivering supplies by plane to Puerto Asis and ferrying them to outlying areas by helicopter.

The army will deploy more forces to the province in the coming days to ''return calm to Putumayo, eliminate the armed blockade and support the manual eradication of coca,'' said Eduardo Pizano, a senior official in President Andres Pastrana's office.

In addition, a planned anti-drug offensive in Putumayo by two battalions of troops who are being trained by elite U.S. soldiers could begin as early as next month, according to U.S. officials.

The Colombian troops are to seize control of cocaine-producing plantations from the FARC, which earns millions of dollars in payments from the growers.

The rebels have threatened to maintain their stranglehold on Putumayo unless Pastrana backs off his plan for the anti-drug offensive.

The army said the 22 rebels were skilled over the weekend across Putumayo, some of them in a tiny village called Siberia, which two weeks ago was in the hands of rebels who were fighting off attempts by paramilitary forces to take the village.


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