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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Gunmen kill mayor in southern coca-growing region

By The Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia - Only an hour after he described the "terror" afflicting his town, a mayor in Colombia's major coca-growing region was shot dead yesterday by gunmen riding on a motorcycle.

The killing of Carlos Rosas, mayor of Orito, comes at the same time that U.S.-backed Colombian forces are preparing a major counternarcotics offensive in the southern region.

The gunmen shot Rosas four times at point-blank range as he walked out of his home, said Alvaro Salas, an official of the Putumayo state government, which encompasses Orito. The gunmen escaped and their identities were unknown.

The daylight assassination comes just a day after the mayor-elect of another Putumayo town, Sibundoy, was shot and wounded, and two weeks after a bomb in a main town, Puerto Asis, exploded, killing two people and wounding 17.

State officials yesterday were holding an emergency security council meeting to discuss ways to dampen spiraling violence in the region, which lies about, 320 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota.

The army is largely in control of Orito, Puerto Asis and other towns and says it is battling to retake control of outlying areas from leftist rebels who have imposed a road blockade in Putumayo. Most of the world's coca, from which cocaine is made, is grown in the southern state.

Meanwhile, members of a right-wing paramilitary group, many of whose members are former government soldiers, are fighting the rebels for control of Putumayo's lucrative coca fields, which the armed groups tax, generating huge profits. The paramilitaries have also been killing suspected guerrilla sympathizers.

"The truth is that there is great uncertainty when supplies don't arrive, and when the sick suffer, it becomes desperate," Rosas said in an interview yesterday on Radionet. "Furthermore, corpses have been appearing, cars are being burned, and this terrifies everyone."

An hour after speaking in the national radio broadcast, Rosas was dead.

U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, meanwhile, said momentum for the anti-drug offensive is building. The so-called Push Into Southern Colombia is part of a $1.3 billion American aid package.

The plan is financing training of Colombian army troops by U.S. special forces at Larandia army base in southern Colombia and delivery of dozens of U.S. combat helicopters, most of which will be based at Tres Esquinas, another Colombian army base in the south.

"Huge construction programs (are) going on in Tres Esquinas to extend the runway, helicopters (are) showing up in Larandia, aircraft are going to show up in Tres Esquinas in the coming months," McCaffrey, a former U.S. Army general, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.