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Colombian government breaks off peace process, orders FARC leaders arrest

Colombian President Andres Pastrana announced a break-off of the peace talks with FARC leftist rebels and ordered the army to reoccupy a large guerilla safe haven in the south by midnight.
Stepping up pressure on the insurgents, the government also reissued arrest warrants for leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and withdrew its recognition of the rebel group as a political organization.

"I want the FARC and all other groups that spread around death and violence to know: the army of 40 million Colombians is invincible," a gravely looking Pastrana said in a televised address to the nation.

"Never, not in their wildest dreams, will they be able to come to power by the force of arms because in our country, power can only be achieved through the ballot box," stressed the president.

Military officials told local reporters that airstrikes against guerrilla targets inside the Switzerland-sized zone will begin at 00:00 (0500 GMT) while ground troops were expected to enter the area between 4:00 and 5:00 am (0900-1000 GMT).

As many as 5,000 troops were preparing to take part in the operation, a military official told AFP.

The dramatic denouement in Colombia's on-again off-again peace process came hours after suspected members of the FARC hijacked a Bogota-bound commercial plane with 37 people onboard, forcing it to land on a remote highway near the town of Hobo, in southern Huila department.

They later released most of the passengers at the landing site, airline officials said.

However, at least two passengers aboard the Colombian-owned Aires plane -- including opposition Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechen Turbay -- were abducted.

"No one can now have any doubt that between politics and terrorism, FARC has chosen terrorism," Pastrana commented on these developments.

The reactivated arrest warrants target the very FARC leaders who took part in earlier peace negotiations, according to the decree.

Addressing directly FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, Pastrana accused him of turning the rebel safe haven in the south of the country "into a den of kidnappers, a laboratory of illegal drugs, and a storage site for arms, dynamite and stolen cars."

The FARC, the country's oldest and strongest rebel group, which boasts about 16,500 fighters, has been locked in a faltering peace process with the government since it was given a vast demilitarized zone in the south of the country in 1998.

The FARC has been fighting the government for some 38 years despite the attempt towards a peace process in the last three years.

The Colombian government announced a suspension rather than a total break-off of the peace process in the immediate aftermath of the hijacking.

Top government peace negotiator Camilo Gomez called the hijacking an "extremely serious" act of terrorism and said the government was sure it had been carried out by an elite FARC unit.

It was not immediately clear what had prompted Pastrana to harden his stance in the intervening hours.

Government and FARC negotiators had been trying to cobble together a ceasefire agreement by April 7.



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