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Rebels' brazen bid to paralyze Colombia

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Peering around the neatly painted metal door, municipal planning secretary Liliana Marquinez politely explains that the town hall will not be open for business today. Or tomorrow. Or at any moment in the foreseeable future.

Local government in this sun-baked Andean village has been paralyzed since Marxist rebels ordered 20 town officials to resign or die.

In the past month, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has explicitly warned local officials – including mayors, councilors, and judges – in 200 towns that they would be declared "military targets" if they fail to step down.

Now, the 17,000-strong guerrilla faction is systematically extending the death threat to every one of the country's 1,098 municipalities, in a concerted attempt to destroy the Colombian state from the ground up. It's an open challenge to President-elect Alvaro Uribe, who won a land- slide election victory in May by promising to crack down on FARC.

Mr. Uribe, who takes office on Aug. 7, has pledged to double military spending and take the battle to the rebels.

But this FARC offensive strikes at the weakest point in the chain of government, highlighting both the frailty of the Colombian state and the challenges which the US-backed government faces in its campaign against the scattered but locally powerful rebel army.

"This is a game of chess: to get the king you first take out the pawns," says Marlio Peralta, who last week resigned as mayor of Santa Maria, three hours north of Hobo.

According to Gilberto Toro of the Federation of Municipalities in Bogotá, about 100 mayors – half of the roughly 200 who were warned by FARC – have refused to bow to the intimidation, but many officials say they cannot afford to ignore the risks. Those in outlying regions say they feel particularly vulnerable.

A mounting toll

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