Colombians take to the streets to appeal for peace

BOGOTA, Colombia - Thousands of Colombians waving white flags poured through the streets of Bogota Sunday to call for an end to decades of fighting between the government and rebel groups, a conflict that has claimed nearly 1,400 civilian lives so far this year.

The march, which filled an avenue of the capital and wound through the center of the city, came as peace talks between the two sides have stalled, and as the United States is pumping $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia.

Business leaders and union chiefs, politicians and average citizens marched together in an event organized by some 200 civic groups. Unofficial crowd estimates ranged from 10,000 to 20,000.

''We're sick of the violence,'' said Eugenio Marulanda, president of Colombia's chambers of commerce. ''We are a kidnapped country. A murdered country. A bloodied country.''

In addition to the more than three-decade-old war between leftist rebels and the government, Colombia has one of the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world. Right-wing paramilitary squads are also murdering more and more suspected sympathizers of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and the National Liberation Army, called the ELN.

In the first eight months of this year, 1,389 civilians have been massacred by either the two main rebel armies or the paramilitary squads, according to the government human rights office.

''No more FARC, no more ELN, no to kidnapping, yes to life,'' read a sign held by Stella Cortes, an accountant.

Among the marchers were children who carried large photos of their fathers who are soldiers or police and are being held captive by the FARC, the larger of the rebel groups. It currently holds more than 500 security-force members captive and has offered to free them in exchange for the release of rebels held prisoner by the government. The government of President Andres Pastrana has refused.

In Venezuela, a newspaper quoted a FARC leader as prediciting that the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia would result in thousands more people killed and spur massive migrations to neighboring countries. The U.S. and Colombian governments say the plan is aimed at seizing the country's drug-producing areas.

The plan is actually aimed at stamping out ''political and social opposition groups,'' like FARC, Ruben Zamora was quoted in Sunday's editions of El Universal as saying

The FARC, which earns millions of dollars a week in protecting and taxing producers of cocaine and heroin in Colombia, has vowed to combat the initiative.

Commenting on Sunday's march, Felipe Rincon, a member of the FARC peace negotiating team, said ''peace is not just the silencing of the rifles.'' In a telephone interview, Rincon accused the government of denying rights to work, health, education and housing to many Colombians, and called the U.S.-backed offensive ''a plan for war.''


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