Outlawed paramilitaries have launched a major offensive on the jungle stronghold of Colombia's second largest leftist rebel force, which warned on Monday peace talks with the government were in crisis.
More than 1,000 paramilitary fighters have stormed towns and villages controlled by the National Liberation Army in the southern province of Bolivar, burning some homes and stemming the flow of food and medical supplies in a region dominated by the 5,000-member force, said a military source.
The rebels said the offensive started on April 2, a day after they restarted peace talks with the government.
In a stiffly worded statement, the Cuban-inspired rebel force accused the armed forces of complicity in the week-long siege, saying the invasion of paramilitaries - some of whom are former members of Colombia's military - came suspiciously soon after the army's withdrawal from the region on March 31.
"The peace process is in a state of crisis due to a lack of credibility and the loss of confidence," the rebels said in a statement sent to Reuters. "The army leaves on one road ... while the on the other come the mercenaries, fed with logistic support and orders from the army."
President Andres Pastrana withdrew the army from the region last month in a bid to restart peace talks with the rebels. The move was seen as a first step toward temporarily ceding the guerrillas a territory slightly larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
The 8,000-member ultra-right paramilitary groups fiercely oppose the creation of the enclave. Its commander, Carlos Castano, even sent a letter to Pastrana last week questioning the army withdrawal.
The president says he is cracking down on the illegal ultra-right paramilitary forces grouped in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The paramilitaries kill suspected rebel collaborators and have been blamed for most of the recent peasant massacres in Colombia's 37-year-old war.
Military sources said seven guerrillas and four paramilitaries had died in the fighting in the past week.
In their statement, the rebels said they had either killed or wounded 70 paramilitaries in some 20 battles. The rebels acknowledged losing only one guerrilla fighter.
A paramilitary officer told local television that his troops had effectively taken control of the rebel stronghold, and the occupation would continue indefinitely.
"The occupation will be indefinite. We are in control of the zone," said the officer, who called himself Gustavo.
More 300 families from the region were forced from the their homes, joining an estimated 2 million internal refugees in Colombia. Residents had protested the troop withdrawal, saying it would only increase violence in a conflict that has claimed 40,000 mainly civilian lives in the past decade alone.
Two years ago, Pastrana granted a demilitarized enclave as big as Switzerland to initiate peace talks with the larger 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
As talks drag on, the three-way war between the armed forces, the leftist rebels and paramilitaries continues.
The United States has provided more than $1 billion in mainly military aid to Pastrana's "Plan Colombia" offensive against cocaine - a crucial income source for rebels and paramilitary forces.