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White House to press for more aid to Colombia

White House to press for more aid to Colombia


From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration will ask Congress for expanded U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to help Colombia fight terrorism, senior administration officials said Wednesday.

Senior State Department officials said the administration will also ask Congress for authority to consider Colombian requests to deploy U.S.-trained brigades, along with U.S. equipment and ammunition, in military operations against the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group deemed by the State Department as international terrorists.

The administration will send a supplemental budget request to Congress in the coming weeks, the officials told CNN.

The Bush administration has been working with Colombian President Andres Pastrana on what he thinks is necessary to fight FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN.

The administration, however, will not take "ownership" of any military operations in Columbia and is being careful not to drive the rebel conflict, the officials said. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have made it clear the United States will not send troops to fight the guerrillas.

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U.S. law currently limits the use of American military assistance to Colombia, but the administration began reviewing its current policy after the recent breakdown of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels.

In recent weeks, the United States has increased the amount of surveillance intelligence it is sharing with Colombia to monitor rebel movements and has sped up the delivery of spare helicopter parts.

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution in support of Colombia's efforts to fight the rebels and called on Bush to submit a proposal on expanding U.S. assistance to the country.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate subcommittee last Thursday that the administration would seek to do more to help Colombia.

"We do believe we should help this democracy that is being threatened by narco-traffickers and terrorists," Powell said, but added that the U.S. would be "very, very mindful" of possible human rights violations by the Colombian military.

U.S. officials said much of the current training and equipment given to Colombia focuses on the spraying of illegal drug crops and interdiction of drug trafficking -- tools and techniques that could easily be redirected for direct combat.

But the training of two more Colombian battalions to combat the country's drug war -- submitted in Bush's budget request for next year -- could also be focused on counter-terrorism if the legal constraints are relaxed, the officials said. A separate request in the budget for $98 million would go toward the training of yet another brigade to protect an oil pipeline in the country.

One senior State Department official said the expanded authority means that the Bush administration could "consider" Colombian requests to redirect U.S. assets for counter-terrorism operations, but that didn't necessarily mean they would be approved.

The official said the decisions will be in accordance with amendments to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. That measure bans the United States from supporting Colombian military officers involved in human rights violations. It limits the number of U.S. military personnel on the ground to 400 and requires the United States to approve all members of the brigades it trains.

Administration officials also expressed concern about relationships between the Colombian rebels and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Though the United States recognizes Venezuela's need to communicate with Colombia's rebels since the two countries share a border, U.S. officials fear Chavez may be providing material support to the armed groups.

Recent reports in Colombia and Venezuela had information on a videotaped meeting between Venezuelan forces and FARC officials.

Additionally, Colombian forces recently seized a Venezuelan plane flying in Colombia with 15,000 rounds of ammunition. They are trying to determine the source of the ammunition.

One official said the Bush administration has warned Chavez that Washington views FARC as a terrorist organization and has "made clear" any evidence of support by Venezuela would have negative consequences.



 
 
 
 







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