Last updated: December 28, 2005 10:01 pm

Farc guerrillas kill 29 Colombian soldiers

Colombian insurgents have killed 29 soldiers in the deadliest attack on the military since President Alvaro Uribe was elected three years ago, setting the stage for heightened tensions ahead of elections in May.

The assault by 300 rebels from the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) took place on Tuesday near the Sierra Macarena national park, in the province of Meta, south-east of Bogotá, the capital. Farc guerrillas opened fire when 80 troops were trapped in an area sown with anti-personnel mines, the military said, hampering rescue efforts.

Mr Uribe on Wednesday inspected the area in person and ordered the dispatch of dozens of police reinforcements to the region to track down the perpetrators, whom he described as “miserable terrorists financed by the drugs trade”.

The ambush, which also left six soldiers injured, is the type of high-profile attack that military analysts had warned that the Farc would try to mount ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next May.

Mr Uribe, who will run as the favourite candidate according to opinion polls, is strongly backed by a majority of Colombians and the US, for his policies designed to restore security to a country plagued by violence.

But, while he has presided over a halving in the frequency of kidnappings, a tactic favoured by Farc, Tuesday’s massacre will reinforce the view of critics who say that his flagship “democratic security” programme has its limits.

Farc has sought, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the state for more than 40 years, but its permanence is in part due to the bountiful resources it enjoys from its control over part of the cocaine trade.

Camilo Ospina, the Colombian defence minister, said that the soldiers had been protecting workers eradicating coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived.

Farc’s leadership has redirected its efforts at targeting the state, rather than civilians.

In June, Farc killed 22 soldiers near a military base in the southern province of Putumayo.

The worst civilian casualties from a Farc attack were sustained in February 2003, when a car bomb exploded in the basement of the El Nogal social club in Bogotá, killing 35 people and injuring 173.

Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, last week agreed to hold preliminary peace talks with the government in January.

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