Rebel blockade in northeast Colombia scares drivers off highways

Fearful drivers stayed off roads and highways Tuesday in northeast Colombia due to an armed blockade _ now in its third week _ imposed by rebels who have set fire to buses, blown up bridges, and killed police officers.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, on Oct. 3 used flyers and clandestine radio stations to warn drivers to stay off roads in the oil-rich state of Arauca. During the first week, rebels torched at least four vehicles that defied the travel ban.

Government forces have brought in reinforcements but so far the state's roads have been mostly devoid of traffic, police said.

"There is fear, and so transportation is paralyzed between towns even though the army and police are offering complete guarantees (of safety)," state police chief Col. Rodrigo Palacio told.

The FARC has been battling the Colombian government for four decades and frequently orders such blockades in parts of the country to intimidate residents and demonstrate its power to disrupt daily life.

There have been several firefights in recent days in Arauca as government forces try to push the rebels away from populated areas. On Oct. 9, two police officers on patrol near the town of Fortul were killed after FARC rebels in civilian clothes ambushed them on an isolated road. One rebel was killed during the attack.

Omar Colena, the acting mayor of Fortul, said he is worried about food shortages if the blockade continues.

"Right now, food supplies are fine, but the thing is, there are no delivery trucks coming in," he said.

Despite the announced blockade, the U.S. company Occidental Petroleum has continued to operate normally at its army-protected oil field in Arauca, officials said.

"Over there ... the situation is normal," said Alvaro Moscoso, lieutenant governor of Arauca, which borders Venezuela.

Occidental's Cano Limon field produced about 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day last year, most of it for export, and a pipeline in Arauca that delivers the oil to port has often been attacked by rebels, AP reported. V.A.

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