TORIBIO, Colombia (AP) – Thousands of children in southwest Colombia began a third week without school Monday amid the most intense fighting between government forces and leftist insurgents in years, including an attack that killed one student.

With classes suspended, hundreds of fearful civilians have sought shelter in the Cecidic school in Toribio, the main school in this part of the Andes. With dormitories for teachers and students who live far away, it serves a rugged region inhabited mostly by Indians who want no part in the conflict.

About 7,000 students region-wide entered their third week with schools closed.

The fighting erupted on April 14 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, bombarded Toribio, 250 miles southwest of Bogota, killing Yorfan Armando Trochez, a 9-year-old at Cecidic. His classmates say school won’t be the same without him.

“I’ll be sad because Yorfan sat right next to me in class,” said second-grader Dania Vanessa Isaza, her large, brown eyes welling with tears. “He would always lend me a pencil or give me a piece of candy.”

Reinaldo Opocue, the school’s headmaster, tried to reopen classes a few days later. But the clashes persisted, often encroaching on the school. Government reinforcements arrived by helicopter as an armored column unsuccessfully tried to reach the town by punching through rebel lines.

“We were unable to teach math while gunshots whizzed by,” Opocue said. “And it wasn’t difficult just for the students. The teachers were terrified as well.”

The fighting has now spread along at least a 14-mile front, and every day, gunfire and explosions echo throughout the jungle-covered mountains. Homes, vehicles and even horses have been outfitted with white flags in hopes the warring sides will not shoot at them.

On Sunday Colombia’s top military leaders toured the region and reported progress in regaining control of the area. But FARC said it was holding its ground. It is the first time in years that the FARC has fought pitched battles against government forces instead of simply carrying out hit-and-run attacks.

Instead of math, the children are learning about warfare. While 12-year-old Dina Lizet was speaking to a reporter in Toribio, a large explosion was heard.

Asked whether it was a mortar round, Dina responded matter-of-factly: “No, that was a gas cylinder bomb. A mortar round does not have as loud of a thud sound.”

The fighting on the western face of the Central Cordillera of the Andes Mountains represents the rebels’ boldest challenge since President Alvaro Uribe was elected three years ago on pledges he would crush the 40-year-old insurgency.

The FARC has long had a presence in the region, where Nasa Indians made up 98 percent of the population.

Markos Yule, regional education director, said FARC rebels have tried to enroll their own children in local schools, but the tribe – not wanting to associate with a warring faction – has kept them out.

The Indians used to reject schools because students were forced to speak Spanish rather than the indigenous language. Children were whipped for uttering even a word of the Nasa language.

But then a push was made to integrate the indigenous language, said Yule, wearing a traditional brown and beige vest called a kapisayo. Attendance jumped from 900 students in 1990 to 6,900 today.

Half the Indian students are now studying the native language, but it is still slowly passing out of use, Yule said. The students, who wear T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes, say they prefer to speak Spanish and only take the language classes because their parents told them to.

The rebels said their assault on Toribio was a message to the government that they will not accept the presence of police or military forces in town centers. Two years ago, a large police bunker was built near Toribio’s main square.

Colombia’s army chief, Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, who toured the zone with Ospina on Sunday, vowed to restore state authority. “We are ready … to flush them (the FARC) out of here,” he said.

Since the start of the rebel offensive, the military has reported a total of five soldiers and three police officers killed. The rebels have denied any deaths in their ranks.

The FARC, created with the aim of overthrowing the government and bringing greater justice and opportunity to the poor, has instead been widely condemned because of its involvement in the drug trade and extortion rackets, and its reliance on frequent kidnappings.

More than 3,000 people are killed each year in the conflict.


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