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Friday Feb. 22, 2002


Military advances on rebel territory after Colombian president ends peace talks

Colombian warplanes began bombing a vast rebel territory yesterday and amassing 13,000 troops nearby, after the president canceled peace talks and decided to retake the region from leftist guerrillas, the military reported.

President Andres Pastrana formally ended Colombia's three-year peace process Wednesday night, just hours after guerrillas hijacked a domestic airliner and kidnapped a senator onboard. Pastrana set a midnight deadline for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to abandon the zone in southern Colombia that he gave to the rebel group in 1998.

The military said it was mobilizing more than 13,000 soldiers from bases located on three sides of the guerrilla safe haven, a region twice the size of New Jersey.

Troops in camouflage uniforms guarded a highway yesterday morning leading from the southern city of Florencia to the rebel zone, about a three-hour drive to the west. They said they were awaiting possible orders to move into the zone.

Corp. Carlos Vanegas, carrying an assault rifle, said he was feeling "very good" about the decision to retake the zone from the FARC. "We should have done this a long time ago. All they were doing is getter stronger inside their safe haven," he added.

The army's second-in-command, Gen. Euclides Sanchez, said a "large-scale" and potentially bloody operation was under way to recapture the zone, involving the army, air force and marines.

"It's dicey, and we will surely suffer casualties, but we have a moral obligation to win this war," he told local Caracol Radio.

The United States has been providing training, equipment and intelligence support to special Colombian army counternarcotics units. Steve Lucas, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, said there are about 250 U.S. military personnel, 50 civilian employees and 100 civilian military contractors in Colombia.


New York Times bars free-lance author who created composite magazine character

A free-lance writer under contract to The New York Times Magazine has been barred from writing future articles for the newspaper after he acknowledged creating a composite character in a story last year.

The author, Michael Finkel, conceded yesterday that he misrepresented the experiences of the title character in a Nov. 18 magazine piece called "Is Youssouf Male a Slave?" But he maintained his report accurately reflected the lives of thousands of West African youths who sell themselves into service on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast.

"Youssouf Male is a real person and I interviewed him, and most of the scenes in that article are based on his experience, but many are based on the experiences of others very much like him," Finkel told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Bozeman, Mont.

"In order to tell a very complex story in a way that is compelling to read, I made the wrong decision to put together several accounts that were told to me by these young workers, and I combined them into one representative voice," he said.

In an editor's note in yesterday's editions, The Times said notes from Finkel's three weeks of reporting "reveal that contrary to the description of Youssouf Male's year of work at the plantation, he spent less than a month there before running away." It continues that "many facts were extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys, and did not apply specifically to any single individual."

Times editors questioned the veracity of Finkel's story after the author notified the newspaper Feb. 13 that a photograph he had taken of a boy, published without a caption, was not a picture of Male.

Save the Children, one of two human rights organizations cited in the story as helping the boy return home, had contacted Finkel, saying it had located the boy in the photo and identified him as Madou Traore, the newspaper said.

Further investigation of Finkel's notes showed that the article's description of Male's return home was actually Traore's experience, The Times said.

Times spokesman Toby Usnik said Finkel - who has written eight other articles for the Sunday magazine - failed to provide a "satisfactory explanation" for what Usnik termed "misrepresentations" and "falsifications."

While editors had no evidence of any problems with other stories by Finkel, "we remain open to further investigation if we come upon information to the contrary," Usnik said.

Finkel told the AP that the problems with the Male story were unique.


Smuggler who pleaded guilty in desert deaths case to be sentenced

A man who admitted leading a group of illegal immigrants on a deadly trek across the southwestern Arizona desert is scheduled to be sentenced today.

Jesus Lopez-Ramos, 20, pleaded guilty in October to 25 smuggling counts. He faces up to 10 years in prison on each count.

The group of illegal immigrants was discovered by U.S. Border Patrol agents May 23 on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in the dry, bleak terrain southeast of Yuma known as "The Devil's Path."

Authorities said 14 people died from dehydration or heat-related injuries after they were left stranded by smugglers in the desert.

Eleven other immigrants survived after being treated for severe dehydration and related kidney damage.

Lopez-Ramos was accused of recruiting 24 migrants in Mexico, then guiding them into the United States on May 19.

Investigators say Lopez-Ramos and two other guides abandoned the group after they ran out of food and water.



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