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US to officially aid fight against Colombia's rebels

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 Shifting Colombia's Aid: U.S. Focuses on Rebels

August 10, 2002
By JUAN FORERO




BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Aug. 9 - Just as a new president, Álvaro
Uribe Vélez, begins his term determined to combat
Colombia's leftist guerrillas, the Bush administration has
delivered a powerful new tool: authorization to use nearly
$1.7 billion in American military aid directly against the
rebels.

Under a little-remarked provision in the antiterrorism
package President Bush signed last week, President Uribe
can now use dozens of American-supplied helicopters as well
as Colombian soldiers who were trained by United States
troops in operations against the rebels and also right-wing
paramilitaries. Previous guidelines limited the use of the
helicopters and soldiers to antidrug operations,
restricting Colombia's armed forces from using some of its
best equipment and troops to fight the rebels.

The policy shift, coming at a time of escalating guerrilla
violence, represents a significant intensification of
United States involvement in the long and intractable
conflict in this country. This week the rebels launched a
mortar attack here in the capital during Mr. Uribe's
inauguration.

The redirection of aid came after Colombian officials and
their American supporters in Congress and the Bush
administration argued that the change was part of the
global campaign against terrorism.

American troops will continue to be barred from
participating in Colombia's 38-year-old conflict, but the
package includes $6 million for an oil pipeline protection
program that will involve the training of a new Colombian
Army unit by American soldiers. The pipeline, which is
crucial to Colombia's economy, is frequently bombed by
rebels.

The legislation, part of a broad $28.9 billion supplemental
package, says that military aid already provided to
Colombia "shall be available" against "activities by
organizations designated as terrorist organizations" by the
State Department. Those organizations are identified as the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's
largest guerrilla group; the National Liberation Army, a
smaller left-wing insurgency; and the nemesis of both, the
right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which is
financed by landowners to battle the rebels.

All three groups have drawn much of their financing from
protecting or participating in the drug trade. Officials in
Washington said the new guidelines take into account the
reality that drugs and terrorism are combined in Colombia.

"There has been a mistake in trying to identify those who
are in drugs and those that are not," said John Walters,
the White House drug policy chief. A State Department
official said the legislation "removes an ambiguity in the
law." He explained that under previous guidelines
American-trained troops using American helicopters could
not attack a guerrilla column or stop a rebel attack.

"That has all changed." Now they can go after guerrillas,
he said, although the equipment and troops will still be
used against drugs. "The equipment is now available for
both," he said.

American congressional aides familiar with the legislation
said the authorization goes into effect immediately. But
there are requirements for Mr. Uribe, a technocrat who won
election in May by promising to bring order to Colombia.
Under the terms, which the government has accepted, it must
devote more money to the army while establishing
comprehensive policies to combat drugs, bring government
authority to rural areas and ensure respect for human
rights.

Colombian officials say the change greatly enhances the
army's combat capability. Most of the benefits come from 53
helicopters, 14 of them high-tech Black Hawks, that
Colombia's army has received as part of the $1.1 billion
Plan Colombia aid package Washington approved in 2000.
Another 19 helicopters, all of them Huey II's, will arrive
by mid-fall.

The guidelines also mean that Colombia will be able to use
a 3,000-man counterdrug brigade trained by American Special
Forces directly against the rebels. The brigade has, until
now, focused on securing dangerous, drug-controlled regions
to allow crop dusters to fumigate without being attacked by
rebel forces.

"It will give us more mobility, much more capacity, much
more firepower," Francisco Santos, Mr. Uribe's vice
president, said in an interview this week. " It helps to
change the military balance, and it helps to contain the
violent ones."

Bush administration officials emphasize that the equipment
and American-trained troops will still primarily be used
for counterdrug operations. Congress will decide if $500
million in military and police aid being proposed in 2003
can also be used directly against the rebels. Since 1999,
the United States has provided Colombia with $1.7 billion
in military aid, making this nation the third-largest
recipient of American assistance.

The shift in policy has concerned human rights groups and
some members of Congress, who say escalating violence may
become a byproduct of the redirected aid.

But it became clear through spring and early summer that a
growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill had sided with
the Bush administration's call for a shift in tactics for
two fundamental reasons. The antidrug fight here has not
worked as planned, with coca plantings continuing to rise,
and there was a general feeling that something drastic
needed to be done to help Colombia battle the surging
rebels.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the chairman of the foreign
operations subcommittee and a Vermont Democrat who has
criticized American policy toward Colombia, said he
supported the legislation because the new policy called for
the aid to also be directed against the paramilitaries and
requires that human rights conditions be met by Colombian
units that use the assistance.

"It is what the majority of Congress is willing to
support," he said.