Colombia's leftist rebels unite

The country's two main groups announced a military alliance against the government on Monday.

Just as momentum is building for President Alvaro Uribe's push to end Colombia's four-decade civil war, the country's two main leftist rebel groups have renewed their efforts to stop him.

The 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the 5,000-member National Liberation Army (ELN) publicly declared on Monday that they had joined forces in their war against the government. Until the declaration, the ELN was thought to be amenable to a possible peace deal.

The declaration comes at a time when Mr. Uribe is engaged in peace talks with right-wing paramilitaries and has proposed granting alternative penalties for drug traffickers and members of illegal armed groups. Some 70 percent of the public backs the hard-line president, who just ended his first year in office.

But while the groups are trying to gain the upper hand against the government, defense analysts are divided on whether this will significantly alter the balance of power in the 39-year conflict.

Leon Valencia, a former ELN commander turned political analyst, says the alliance is serious and will give "new air to the armed conflict." He views the alliance as "very worrisome for the country."

"The ELN will contribute to the FARC a long tradition of urban operational experience and perhaps a political vision that is more agile and of greater vision," Valencia said in an e-mail from Uruguay, where he is now living. "The FARC will impose on the ELN greater military goals, and if the alliance is solid, contribute economic resources that could revitalize the ELN."

Valencia argues that the conflict will "intensify" as a result of the alliance and "this will ensure that the end of Uribe's tenure won't be rose colored."

In contrast, Alfredo Rangel, a defense analyst who runs a security think tank here, says that the course of the war is unlikely to change much. He says the two groups have already been working together in several regions.

"There is an intention to widen the cooperation," Mr. Rangel says. "The ELN may receive [a boost], but I don't think that changes the situation."

Combating Uribe's moves

Since Uribe came to office last August, he has taken the fight to Colombia's rebel groups, increasing military spending, authorizing new war taxes, and creating an army of peasant soldiers. He has also initiated peace talks with the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia in an effort to demobilize some 20,000 troops by the end of 2005. The government has even tried unsuccessfully to advance peace negotiations with the ELN.

Additionally, just last week Uribe proposed granting "conditional liberty" to drug traffickers and rebels, right- or left-wing, who have committed crimes against humanity. Instead of going to jail, low-level offenders would pay alternative penalties such as prohibition from serving in office and carrying firearms.

But the two leftist groups have rejected any kind of peace deal with the Uribe government. Perhaps trying to grab the public-relations image edge back from Uribe, who has succeeded in getting the international community to condemn the FARC as terrorists, the rebels released a six-point communiqué on Monday that condemns Uribe's "democratic security" policies.

The document dubs Uribe's government as "an enemy of peace" and "war-like by conviction." "For that reason, we declare that while the illegitimate government of Alvaro Uribe persists in its fascist and militaristic policies, we will not advance any process of political accord and national dialogue," it reads.

Yet the guerrilla groups claim they are dedicated to peace, as long as it is outside the rubric of the antinarcotics and terrorism program heavily funded by the US known as "Plan Colombia." The ELN also jumped on board the FARC's long-standing plea for an exchange of hostages for jailed rebels. Uribe has rejected such a swap.

The rebels further called on Colombians and the international community to "denounce" Uribe's platform of "democratic security" that has been criticized by human rights groups for curtailing civil liberties and involving more civilians in the war.

As well, the FARC and ELN rejected a proposed national referendum, which will be put to a vote on Oct. 25, saying the government is looking for a "consolidation of state[-sponsored] terrorism." Ending on a bellicose note, the statement calls for "liberation or death."

Escalating violence

The war cry comes in the midst of escalating violence in certain regions. On Monday, at least five people died, including a 1-year-old boy, when the FARC allegedly planted a bomb on a dock in Meta. The Cano-Limon oil pipeline in the eastern province of Arauca, where US Green Berets are training Colombian antiterror troops, was bombed this weekend for the 20th time this year. And earlier this month, the FARC allegedly detonated a car bomb in the town of Saravena in Arauca, killing four civilians, including two children.

Rangel notes that the two groups have tried unsuccessfully to work together before. The rebels once comprised the now-defunct "Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Group" that failed to broker peace with the government in 1991 and 1992.

Since then, they have operated on largely separate tracks and even fought against each other for power and recognition from the government as the dominant guerrilla force.

The FARC was founded in 1964 to establish Marxism in Colombia. It has at least 70 fronts that roam up to 60 percent of the country, mainly to the plains east and south of the Andes.

Although it was originally created to promote social justice, during the 1990s it became heavily involved in the drug trade. Along with taxing coca, the FARC earns its income from kidnappings and extortion.

The ELN was also founded in 1964, by a group of radical students and Spanish priests trained in Cuba. It has been losing power and numbers in recent years, but has been responsible for mass kidnappings and the abduction of two Los Angeles Times journalists in January.

It largely focuses on attacking infrastructure, such as oil pipelines and electrical towers. Earlier this year, the ELN condemned the February bombing of a nightclub in Bogotá, which killed dozens.

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