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Colombia sends armed troops to clear park of cocaine trade

Eradication effort could trigger fights with rebels

BOGOTA -- Some 3,000 armed troops were deployed to one of Colombia's most pristine national parks yesterday as part of a bold operation to clear the rebel-controlled region of cocaine laboratories and the plants used to make the drug.

It is the largest coca eradication drive in Colombia's history and could lead to battles with the country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which makes money by cocaine trafficking, warned General Jorge Daniel Castro.

''It's going to be very difficult because this is the FARC's territory," Castro, the national police chief, said before departing for the park to lead the operation. ''This is an extremely risky operation."

President Alvaro Uribe vowed last month to destroy all the coca fields in the Sierra Macarena National Park after the rebels killed 29 soldiers in a surprise attack just outside the preserve, 105 miles south of Bogota.

The rebel group has not commented on the plan, but the advance notice has given the rebels plenty of time to prepare.

''The FARC will not go quietly. But after an initial resistance, they will retreat as they always do, then wait for the government forces to leave and then they will return," said Leon Valencia, a political analyst who was formerly a guerrilla with another leftist group.

Uribe blamed the Dec. 27 assault, in which the guerrillas outgunned the soldiers nearly five to one, on the rebels' increased wealth from drug trafficking and their use of the Macarena nature preserve as a refuge to grow coca.

US-owned fumigation planes spray weed killer over tens of thousands of acres of Colombian coca fields each year, but bypass the country's 36 nature parks due to environmental concerns -- a point not overlooked by coca farmers, who have invaded at least 11 of the parks, Castro said.

The December attack was the deadliest on government forces since Uribe took office three years ago on a promise to wipe out the rebels.

And while the president's military actions have brought a sharp drop in kidnappings and homicides, they have had little impact on the 12,000-member FARC's strike capabilities.

About 900 farmers have been hired to rip up the coca plants by hand inside the 1.6 million-acre Macarena park.

The project, called ''Operation Macarena" begins Thursday and will take about three months -- until ''the last coca plant" in the park is yanked out by its roots, Castro said.

About 1,500 police officers arrived inside the park during the past two days, while 2,000 army soldiers have been deployed just outside the park, the military said.

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