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14 killed in rebel rocket attack

Colombian marine post hit in battle for strategic river

BOGOTA -- Leftist rebels, in a struggle for control of a jungle river used for cocaine trafficking, fired rockets into a Colombian marine post early yesterday, killing at least 14 marines and wounding 25, the Colombian navy commander said.

The assault on the outpost in the southwestern village of Iscuande was the bloodiest rebel attack in two years. It came as government forces were waging an offensive in south-central Colombia against the guerrillas.

Defense Minister Jorge Uribe said he grieved for the slain soldiers, but assured the nation the government would prevail.

''We are in mourning for the deaths of our marines," Uribe said. ''But we must look at the medium- and long-term and see that the pendulum remains swinging in favor of peace and security for Colombians."

Government forces, including US-trained counternarcotics troops, used river gunboats, helicopters, and an airplane outfitted with machine guns to pursue the fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who carried out the pre-dawn attack.

A lieutenant who commanded the jungle outpost and 13 other marines were killed, said Admiral Mauricio Soto, Colombian navy commander.

''We deeply regret the death of our men. But this was a group of Colombians who died defending their country and its people," Soto told a news conference in the capital, Bogota, 300 miles northeast of Iscuande. About 100 marines and police prevented the insurgents from overrunning the town and attacking police headquarters.

Some of the wounded, bloodied from shrapnel wounds, were taken by helicopter to the southwestern city of Cali.

FARC rebels used large gas cylinders converted into rockets in the attack, the navy said. The outpost is located near where the Iscuande River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Soto said drug traffickers ferry chemicals used to produce cocaine along the river to clandestine labs inland and use the waterway to send purified cocaine to the ocean for smuggling to the United States and beyond.

The rebels, who control a large share of cocaine production in Colombia, apparently launched the attack to wrest control of the river from authorities, Soto said.

Some of the troops who were attacked are so-called peasant marines who are natives of the area where they are stationed and who receive three months of military training.

The deployment of thousands of peasant troops to protect their villages and farms from the rebels is a major component of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe's strategy to bring Colombia's 40-year-old insurgency to its knees.

In the past five years, the United States has given Colombia $3 billion in mostly military aid to combat the rebels, and the cocaine and heroin production whose profits fuel the war. US Special Forces have trained Colombian counternarcotics troops.

Yesterday's attack was the bloodiest since the rebels wired a house in the southern city of Neiva with explosives and detonated it on Feb. 14, 2003, as police entered, killing 17 people.

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