updated 2/9/2005 9:05:23 PM ET 2005-02-10T02:05:23

Marxist rebels killed at least 17 soldiers during clashes in northwest Colombia, the military’s heaviest battle toll in two years, officials said Wednesday. At least 11 guerrillas also died in the fighting.

Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, the nation’s armed forces chief, said two soldiers were wounded and eight others left missing following the third rebel clash with government troops this month.

He said the fighting erupted Tuesday when army soldiers opened fire on a column of rebels belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which appeared poised to attack the mountain village of Mutata.

Ospina said during a news conference that the 11 rebels died in that clash and the others fled, returning hours later with reinforcements.

The guerrillas renewed the fight against the military and the battle raged into early Wednesday. Ospina said the 17 soldiers were killed but did not say if any more rebel deaths.

Earlier, an official with the army’s 17th Brigade in Carepa, a village near the combat zone, put the number of dead at 20.

The FARC have been known to intimidate and often kill villagers who are frequently forced to take sides in Colombia’s four-decade conflict.

The FARC began concerted attacks earlier this month, bouncing back from a year-old offensive ordered by President Alvaro Uribe against the FARC’s jungle strongholds in southeast Colombia.

On Feb. 1, FARC rebels killed 16 Colombian marines and wounded 25 more when they fired homemade rockets at a base in southwest Colombia. The next day, an army patrol in south-central Colombia drove over explosives planted by the FARC, killing eight soldiers and one civilian and injuring four other soldiers.

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