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Originally published Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guerrillas kill 24 soldiers on Colombia drug patrol

Guerrilla forces on Tuesday killed 24 Colombian soldiers who were protecting coca-eradication workers in a lawless jungle province, the...

Los Angeles Times; The Associated Press

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Guerrilla forces on Tuesday killed 24 Colombian soldiers who were protecting coca-eradication workers in a lawless jungle province, the deadliest such attack this year, the Colombian army said.

The mass slaying comes 10 days after rebels killed eight police officers and briefly abducted 29 others in another state. Together, the incidents show the severe shortcomings of Colombia's security forces despite billions in U.S. aid and President Alvaro Uribe's efforts to beef up the police and army and end 40 years of violence.

Analysts expect such attacks to continue in the run-up to Colombia's presidential primary in March and full election in May. Uribe is favored to win a second term.

Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has pushed through policies that have demobilized two-thirds of the nation's 20,000 right-wing paramilitary fighters. Analysts think the demobilization is a prelude to a military campaign to defeat leftist guerrilla armies, who have refused to engage in peace negotiations.

Tuesday's killings occurred near the town of Vista Hermosa in Meta province, a prime coca-cultivation area about 100 miles south of the capital, Bogotá. The soldiers were there to protect another team of soldiers who were pulling up the plants, whose leaves are used to make cocaine.

Although much of Colombia's coca-eradication efforts is performed by aerial spraying, an increasing portion of crop destruction is being done by hand to avoid herbicide damage to adjoining crops and the environment, officials say.

Under the so-called Plan Colombia, the United States has given Colombia more than $3.4 billion in aid since 2000 to fight drugs and the guerrilla and paramilitary forces that grow, process and export them.

On Dec. 17, rebels killed eight national police officers and kidnapped 29 others in remote Choco state in northwest Colombia, a prime drug-cultivation and transit area. Three days later, the 29 police were released.

Bolivia prepared

to reject U.S. aid

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President-elect Evo Morales will reject U.S. economic and military aid if the United States requires continued coca-eradication efforts to get the money, a close aide to the former coca growers' leader said Tuesday.

Morales also plans to withdraw Bolivia's military from anti-drug efforts and leave the job to police, said Juan Ramon Quintana, a member of the Morales' transition team.

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Morales, who won Bolivia's presidency Dec. 18 with a decisive 54 percent of the vote, campaigned on promises to stand up to the U.S. on the coca issue and the eradication of coca plantations.

Coca eradication is a condition for aid from the United States, which gave Bolivia $91 million in 2005.

Morales' decision was made "mainly for reasons of sovereignty," said Quintana, who described Bolivia's Special Force to Fight Drug Trafficking as "an appendix" of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Morales' election added momentum to South America's leftward tilt. He has forged strong ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, both outspoken U.S. critics.

Morales announced he will travel Friday to Cuba to meet with Castro as the first stop in a world tour that will include visits to Europe, China, South Africa and Brazil before he assumes office.

The United States has congratulated Morales on his victory and said that relations between the countries will depend in large part on whether the president-elect respects democratic norms.

A U.S. embassy spokesman said Tuesday that there would be no official comment on the announcement that Bolivia will forego financial aid that comes with anti-drug strings attached.

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