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Plan to Lift Limits on Past Colombia Aid: US planes could hunt guerrillas

23 March 2002

The Bush administration has asked Congress to allow the Colombian government to use past anti-drug contributions of helicopters, planes, gunboats and other equipment in its expanding campaign against guerrilla groups, officials said yesterday.

The administration has previously signaled that it would ask Congress to allow new aid to be used for "counterterrorism" activities, as well as for the anti-drug effort. But, in a supplemental budget request submitted this week, the administration seeks to further leverage the efforts against the rebels by loosening restrictions on past aid as well.

The supplemental budget request that includes the unfettering of past aid also seeks $35 million in new funding for the current year. The sum would be in addition to $435 million the administration already requested for Colombia for fiscal 2003.

"This is big," said Adam Isacson, a Latin American expert at the Center for International Policy, a center-left think tank in Washington.

Congressional aides of the two major U.S. parties expect a fight over the proposal this spring because some lawmakers fear that broadening military aid could mire the United States in a conflict that has raged for 38 years.

Critics say the budget request language permitting use of the money for "counterterrorism" defines its purpose so broadly that the Colombian government "could use it for almost anything," in the words of one aide.

Bush administration aides have been arguing that the United States needs to quickly step up the battle against the two main Colombian rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army. The leftist guerrillas are battling Colombian government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.

U.S. officials contend that the United States should intervene because the groups pose a threat to an allied democracy and to Americans directly.

Administration officials maintain that past U.S. policy, which tried to limit aid to the anti-drug effort, was unrealistic because the rebels have turned to drug trafficking to fund their insurgency.

U.S. aid to Colombia has been allocated to a variety of purposes, including building the country's economy and developing its democratic institutions. But the U.S. anti-drug aid has bought military equipment that could be used against the rebels.

The United States has appropriated money to provide about 75 helicopters for the Colombian military, according to analyst Isacson, although not all of those are now ready for operations. He said the United States has also bought about a dozen helicopters for the Colombian police and has provided fixed-wing aircraft with sophisticated sensors, and some river gunboats that are armed with machine guns.

Paul Richter, in Washington
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle © 2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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