BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombia's military suffered stinging blows in three days of heavy fighting against guerrillas, with 54 soldiers and police dead and a U.S.-built army helicopter downed by suspected rebel fire, officials said Friday.
Another 17 police officers were feared dead or taken prisoner by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The latest bloodshed, among the military's heaviest loss in years, underscored the rebels' growing military might and the government's tenuous control over much of the Colombian countryside.
The 15,000-strong FARC, Colombia's largest and most powerful insurgency, is stepping up attacks as peace talks with President Andres Pastrana have ground to a standstill.
On Thursday, a Black Hawk combat helicopter slammed into a mountain near Dabeiba in northwest Antioquia State while trying to unload troops into battle. All 18 soldiers and four crewmen aboard the aircraft were killed.
The army initially called the crash an accident due to winds that slammed the helicopter's tail into the ground. But Army chief Jorge Mora acknowledged Friday that the Black Hawk's wreckage had bullet hits and its pilot was found with fatal gunshot wounds.
While still not ruling out an accident, Mora said rebel fire may have disabled the pilot as he was trying to land, or damaged the Black Hawk enough to cause it to crash.
However, Mora said the pilot and some others aboard might have been shot after the crash.
The Black Hawks are designed to carry three crew members and as many as 11 fully-outfitted infantry troops, according to a Web site for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the manufacturer.
On Wednesday, rebel fighters launched simultaneous attacks on Dabeiba and on Bagado, a town 110 miles to the south in Choco State. Seventeen police officers stationed there were missing Friday, police Gen. Ismael Trujillo said.
Another 30 soldiers died in ground combat Thursday trying to retake Dabeiba, and two police officers were killed defending the town. Rebel casualty reports were not immediately available.
Dabeiba lay in ruins Friday. TV footage of a church destroyed in the fighting showed sunlight streaming through gaping holes and rows of pews upturned.
The military said it sent 1,000 troops to the area and was strafing retreating guerrillas Friday.
While attacking in the north, FARC rebels maintained a month-old armed road blockade that has paralyzed a key southern state, Putumayo, and sent several hundred refugees fleeing into neighboring Ecuador.
The government has been reduced to airlifting food and fuel supplies to Putumayo's people.
The fighting comes as the United States is to begin delivering a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package that includes 16 Black Hawk and dozens of Huey combat helicopters.
The new U.S. helicopters, expected next year, are to ferry troops into southern cocaine-producing regions controlled by the FARC. Colombia purchased the helicopter that crashed Thursday with its own funds, military sources said.
In Bogota, Pastrana mourned the soldiers' deaths but urged Colombians not to lose faith in the peace process over ''a few bursts of machine gunfire.'' He then flew to an army base to where the slain soldiers had been taken in Medellin, the closest city to Dabeida, and spoke to a gathering of troops.
There are fears that rebels and rival paramilitary groups might try to disrupt Oct. 29 local elections.
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