Colombia Breaks Off Peace Process

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Andres Pastrana broke off the peace process with leftist rebels Wednesday night, hours after the guerrillas hijacked a jetliner and kidnapped a prominent senator.

In a nationally televised address, Pastrana gave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia until midnight, three hours away, to abandon the vast safe haven he granted them at the beginning of the process.

The president warned that if they didn’t withdraw he would send in troops.

There was no immediate reaction from the 16,000-strong rebel group.

“It’s not possible to sign agreements on one side while putting guns to the head on the other,” Pastrana said.

The highly organized hijacking angered a nation already fed up with peace talks that have gone nowhere amid a war that continues to escalate.

In one of the most brazen attacks in a 38-year battle against the government, four rebels dressed in civilian clothes and armed with handguns seized control of the Aires airlines flight, forcing it fly into southern Colombia.

Camouflage-clad rebels met the plane as it landed on a narrow road near the town of Hobo, clipping small trees before it came to a stop. The waiting rebels then whisked away the four armed hijackers and Sen. Jorge Gechen Turbay, 50, president of the Colombian Senate’s peace commission.

The fleeing guerrillas blew up a bridge and planted land mines to prevent security forces from chasing them.

The remaining 29 passengers and crew of the Aires airlines Dash-8 turboprop were freed unharmed.

Rebel leader Andres Paris declined to comment on the hijacking, saying he wasn’t “authorized to give information.”

Though he said the peace process was at and end, Pastrana — who has made the peace with the rebels a cornerstone of his presidency — insisted that the three-year-long talks had not be wasted. He said the military was stronger than it had ever been.

Halfway through the speech, he stopped talking to show video clips of destruction attributed to the rebels, bridges that had been blown up, a homemade bomb in a church, buildings destroyed by explosions, a child’s body lying under a sheet.

Then he showed aerial photographs that he said were of airstrips and highways the FARC had built inside the Switzerland-sized safe haven in order to further their drug trafficking activities.

“Now no one believes in their willingness to reach peace,” Pastrana said.

Just one month ago, foreign diplomats managed to save the peace process. During that crisis, the president twice gave the guerrillas 48 hours to make concessions, or abandon the zone.

This time, he gave them less than three hours, promising to send in troops at midnight.

Just a day earlier, Pastrana reflected hope in the plan when he had spelled out the government’s cease-fire proposal, which had demanded an end to guerrilla kidnappings as part of any agreement.

The two sides had been trying to reach truce terms by an April 7 deadline. The war pits the rebel group and a smaller guerrilla faction against Colombia’s U.S.-backed military and an illegal right-wing paramilitary group.

The United States is providing military aid to Colombia, mostly to wipe out drug crops. The Bush administration has asked Congress to authorize $98 million to train and arm a Colombian army brigade to protect a vital oil pipeline from rebel attacks.

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