Rebels step up attacks on Colombia energy targets

Associated Press Modified: September 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm •  Published: September 16, 2012

BOGOTA (AP) — The port town of Tumaco on Colombia's Pacific coast went dark for more than a week in early August after guerrillas toppled three electricity towers in the remote area.

Rebel-planted land mines did even more damage, delaying the restoration of power while killing at least five people, including two workers trying to repair the towers, local authorities said.

Such attacks on electricity infrastructure, gas pipelines and trains transporting coal occurred almost daily in the 1990s, and into the 2000s, as Colombia's rebel groups targeted the energy industry either to extort funds or attack foreign companies considered to be exploiting the nation's riches.

The attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest rebel force in the country, and the smaller National Liberation Front, or ELN, eventually fell off. But such rebel sabotage has been on the upswing again — a sign to some that the guerrillas have grown desperate as their armed strength has waned. The attacks have also hit as Colombia tries to build its economic future around increased oil production.

"The terrorists are still keeping it up to remain visible, undertaking certain limited, isolated actions that attempt to demonstrate a force that the country understands they do not have," Defense Minister Jose Carlos Pinzon said Wednesday of the most recent attacks.

Meanwhile, FARC representatives prepare for peace talks with Colombian authorities next month in Oslo, Norway, and have proposed a cease fire that could end the attacks on energy targets. President Juan Manuel Santos, however, has ruled out such a cease-fire, saying he has asked the military to instead step up their actions.

"We're not going to give up until we have a final accord, and that's clear," Santos said.

The energy and mining sector represents about 70 percent of the country's exports, with petroleum sales alone totaling at least $32 billion annually. The sector generates 12 percent of the country's gross domestic product, money that's key for development projects ranging from the construction of highways and bridges to low-income housing.

No estimates exist on how much damage the sabotage causes annually, but if a peace agreement is signed, Colombia's gross domestic product could grow an additional one or two percentage points, helping the country reach annual economic growth of 5 to 6 percent, according to Treasury Minister Mauricio Cardenas, a former minister of energy and mining.

Cardenas downplayed the impact of the attacks but still acknowledged they have had a cost, preventing the production of at least 15,000 barrels of crude daily. He denied they were a key reason for Colombia's failure to reach its production goal of a million barrels daily, saying bureaucratic delays in issuing environmental permits for oil projects were more to blame.

Neither the ELN nor the FARC has commented on the recent increase of attacks.

So far, the guerrillas have focused on infrastructure such as cargo trains and pipelines, leaving untouched facilities used to extract coal or pump oil from the ground. That's still hurt overall petroleum production, slowed exports and delayed plans to bring electricity to entire communities.

The attacks on pipelines have mushroomed by 253 percent, from 19 in the first half of 2011 to 67 in the same period this year, according to Defense Ministry data. There were 84 pipeline attacks last year, two less than the 86 recorded in 2002 when the FARC's armed strength was unquestioned.

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