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Colombia expects final victory over FARC rebels

BOGOTA, March 28 (UPI) -- Colombia is refurbishing its armed forces in expectation of a final victory over FARC rebels, who are seen to be losing momentum in their war on President Juan Manuel Santos.

Santos assumed office last August after an election marked by the continued popularity of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, who brought economic prosperity and relative peace after a U.S.-backed crackdown on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and its links with the drug gangs targeting North America.

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Uribe was constitutionally barred from seeking a new term as president.

FARC has seen its profile as a communist militia increasingly sullied by its association with drug overlords, largely in response to its need for funding for continued activism.

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FARC lost further ground as domestic worries, including a third consecutive year of recession, forced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to reduce aid to the guerrilla force.

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Santos re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela a few days after his inauguration, further mellowing Chavez, who had accused Uribe of planning to invade his country with U.S. help.

Colombia's response to FARC setbacks has been to regroup and refurbish its most potent assets arrayed against FARC to deal the group a final blow. Officials said the Santos government was nearer achieving its target.

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Last year Colombia made new military acquisitions worth several millions of dollars. Details of the arms deals weren't released. Officials said the purchases were a necessary part of the military refurbishment program.

Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said that the FARC guerrilla movement is surrounded and with its operational capacity very diminished and limited following government security measures.

"The FARC are surrounded and we are going to smoke them out of their burrows," Rivera said in an interview published in Santiago's El Mercurio newspaper.

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"To pacify the country we don't need permission from the guerrilla" said Rivera, after he visited Chile to sign a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation, training and information between the armed forces of the countries.

"The FARC are running away from a great offensive of our law enforcement and military forces," said Rivera. "They are confined to very remote places of our national geography where they have historically had their main camps and where they feel a bit safer and at ease because they know the terrain."

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He said the guerrilla group no longer has the capacity to organize massive kidnappings, as in the past. The few incidents associated with FARC "have had an immediate response from our military and police forces that have rescued or set them free," he said. "Nor have they access to the large urban centers."

He added the Santos government's decision to pacify the country is clearly reflected in that "we're after them. We're on the offensive, after their burrows," MercoPress reported.

He said the fight against FARC had led to sacrifices by government forces, including casualties from the guerrilla group's antipersonnel mines, explosives and booby traps.

Santos has offered FARC rebels incentives to abandon the group.

FARC ranks have diminished from an original 16,000 in 2001 to around 9,000. Santos said the FARC numbers might be down to fewer than 5,000.

FARC is designated as a terrorist group by Colombia, the United States and the European Union, Chile and New Zealand.

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