January 13, 2001

Residents of Colombia's deadliest town hope for end to violence

                  BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia (AP) -- Gunmen from the nation's warring
                  factions have for years roamed the streets of this oil town in the sweltering
                  plains of northern Colombia -- one of the deadliest places in the Americas.

                  But in the midst of one of the most violent months on record, the government is
                  beefing up its security presence as it prepares to establish a demilitarized zone

                  The government this week dispatched 150 army special forces soldiers to the
                  town to end a series of massacres and bombings that have left 25 dead since the
                  start of this year alone. In one of the latest attacks, suspected leftist guerrillas
                  ambushed an armored police vehicle, killing a mother and her daughter who were
                  driving by in a car.

                  "Apparently we are at war," said a 37-year-old woman who would only give her
                  first name, Lola. Last October, her mother was killed by unknown gunmen.

                  Gunmen from rebel groups and rival right-wing paramilitaries roam the town,
                  drawn to its strategic position on the banks of the nation's largest river, the
                  Magdalena, and the wealth created by its oil industry.

                  Suspected collaborators of the opposing side are ruthlessly murdered. More than
                  470 of the town's 195,000 residents were slain last year, according to human
                  rights monitors.

                  The armed groups support themselves by "taxing" local criminal networks that
                  rob gasoline from the refineries and then sell it on the black market, said army.
                  Lt. Col. Hugo Moreno, who is charged with wresting control of the region from
                  the insurgents.

                  This week, the government announced it is on the verge of granting the leftist
                  National Liberation Army, or ELN, a piece of territory outside this town to meet
                  the rebels' precondition for beginning peace talks. The two sides are expected to
                  formalize the agreement soon.

                  The plan has sparked heated opposition from residents outside Barrancabermeja
                  who would live in the demilitarized zone. They are threatening to erect
                  roadblocks to protest creation of the zone, which many fear could go the way of
                  the DMZ ceded to the nation's largest guerrilla group two years ago.

                  Critics accuse the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, of using
                  their DMZ in southern Colombia -- an area about the size of Switzerland -- to
                  smuggle drugs, hide kidnap victims and organize attacks.

                  Some of Barrancabermeja's residents hope the sending of troops will quell the
                  violence, but many are skeptical.

                  "When they come by, there is never anything happening," a woman named Maria
                  said as an army patrol walked past her house. But when massacres or shootouts
                  between warring factions occur, government security forces are rarely around,
                  said the woman, who did not want to give her surname.

                  Some Barrancabermeja residents are also nervous about the prospect of a
                  5,000-strong insurgent group being given a home outside their town.

                  The ELN has pledged not to abuse the demilitarized zone, the heart of which
                  would be the village of San Pablo, 37 miles (60 kilometers) from
                  Barrancabermeja. The borders of the demilitarized zone have not been set, but it
                  likely would be far smaller than the one granted to the FARC.

                  On Friday, ELN commander Pablo Beltran proposed a bilateral cease-fire with
                  the government should the peace talks get under way.

                  The 150 special forces troops arrived Thursday and will remain indefinitely.
                  Their presence is a welcome reassurance for some.

                  "People here want peace," Barrancabermeja Police Col. Jose Miguel Villar said.

                  In northern Bolivar State, paramilitary gunmen killed six police officers as they
                  tried to free their captured commander.

                  Militia members attacked the police station Friday night in the town of
                  Zambrano, hours after police brought in the commander. One officer was killed,
                  police Gen. Alfredo Salgado said. The gunmen returned Saturday morning, killing
                  five officers, but again failed to free their leader.

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.