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23 officers feared dead in Colombia

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Leftist rebels attacking a police station in a mountain town claimed to have killed nearly two dozen officers, and authorities said they feared the worst Sunday as they struggled to deploy reinforcements.

Radio transmissions from the besieged police officers in the town of Arboleda were cut on Sunday morning, about 24 hours after the attack began. The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, told a local photojournalist who tried to enter Arboleda that they had killed 23 police officers.

Police said they could not confirm the report, but said it was possible that casualties are high among the 26 officers stationed in Arboleda.

"It looks like there have been many killed," national police Col. Mario Gutierrez said.

The attack could be the bloodiest since the United States approved $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia to battle leftist rebels and other armed groups involved in narcotics production. As a rebel offensive heats up, there are calls for the aid to be used for anti-guerrilla missions that aren't directly related to drugs.

The rebels have reportedly mined access routes to Arboleda, 90 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota. National police chief Gen. Ernesto Gilibert was at the airport in the provincial capital, Manizales, coordinating with the army and air force to get reinforcements to the town, Gutierrez said.

"We fear the worst," said Police Col. Norberto Pelaez, the police commander in Caldas province, where Arboleda is located.

Low cloud cover in the mountainous region was paralyzing air support operations. The rebels prevented the local photographer, who was interviewed on national radio, from entering the town.

Gutierrez said it was unclear if U.S.-supplied Blackhawk combat helicopters, which provide security for planes fumigating drug-producing coca and poppy fields, would be used in the fighting in Arboleda if the weather cleared.

U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman said Colombian security forces weren't restricted to using the Blackhawks only for anti-drug operations.

The Blackhawks can be used "to defend the police and military forces if they are under attack in a zone where there are anti-narcotics activities," Kamman as quoted as saying in an interview Saturday with ANCOL, the Colombian government's news agency.

However, Arboleda is not believed to be in a coca- or poppy-producing region, meaning their use to help the besieged police might violate U.S. policy.

The same issue came up in a similar attack mounted by the FARC on July 15 on the southwestern town of Roncesvalles. The rebels besieged the police station in the town, and after police ran out of ammunition, the rebels allegedly executed 13 of the officers.

Under the new U.S. aid, approved by President Clinton on July 13, Washington will provide 60 more helicopters, including Blackhawks and Hueys, to Colombian security forces.