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Boos, gunfire greet Colombian president's arrival in FARC area

From Toby Muse, for CNN
July 12, 2012 -- Updated 0125 GMT (0925 HKT)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has his picture taken with a resident of Toribio on July 11, 2012.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has his picture taken with a resident of Toribio on July 11, 2012.
  • There is an explosion before President Juan Manuel Santos arrives
  • "Santos' war hasn't helped anyone here," says a FARC commander
  • "Get out!" villagers yell at Santos in the town square

Toribio, Colombia (CNN) -- Boos from residents and occasional gunfire from rebel forces in nearby mountains greeted the arrival Wednesday of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the southwestern town of Toribio, a rebel zone.

Santos, who arrived at noon, was in town to meet with villagers over their demands that both government soldiers and members of the rebel group Armed Revolutionary Front of Colombia leave the area.

Before Santos' noon arrival, Armed Revolutionary Front of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas fired continuously from mountains surrounding the war-torn town and a heavy explosion jolted the area near the police station.

The explosion occurred 150 meters from where a group of Colombian politicians had gotten out of a helicopter after landing there for a meeting. Witnesses initially said the blast appeared to be a guerrilla attack, but indigenous authorities said the blast may have been an army-controlled explosion of a guerrilla explosive device.

In a display of its muscle, FARC set up a checkpoint of 10 guerillas just outside Toribio and controlled access through the primary route into and out of the town. A FARC commander of the Special Forces of the 6th Front told CNN that "Santos' war hasn't helped anyone here in this zone. He wants to increase the army and the police, which will not bring any benefit to the people or Toribio."

Santos' war hasn't helped anyone here in this zone. He wants to increase the army and the police, which will not bring any benefit to the people or Toribio
FARC commander

The commander said that if the government were to remove its soldiers from the zone, "FARC would have no reason to remain there," but promised the group would remain as long as the military is there.

Santos walked openly through the town square, where he was met by boos and shouts of "Get out! Get out!" From a distance, bursts of sporadic gunfire could be heard.

"It is good that the president will hear these shots around us as then he will see what it is like for us here every day," said Sigifredo Pavo, president of the Nasa Indigenous Authority.

Santos then met privately with representatives of the indigenous group, a move that outraged some villagers despite Santos' promise to meet with them later.

Dissatisfied with both the president and the FARC, hundreds of members of the local Nasa tribal community split into two groups, one of which marched to the FARC checkpoint and the other to a military compound two hours away by foot. Each carried the same message: Get out of Toribio.

Above the military compound, they raised a white flag of peace and their own indigenous flag.

Santos has seen his ratings among Colombians drop in recent weeks because of the widespread perception that the security situation has gotten out of control during his leadership.

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