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Powell Pledges More Support For Colombia's Anti-Rebel War

New President Is Praised for Tough Stance on Guerrillas

By Glenn Kessler

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, December 5, 2002; Page A22

BOGOTA, Colombia, Dec. 4 -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell strongly backed the Colombian government's stepped-up war against rebel forces and drug traffickers today, pledging to seek more funding from Congress to aid the United States' deepening commitment to a four-decade-old civil war.

The Bush administration, breaking from past U.S. hesitation to become more directly involved, has argued that the Colombian conflict is part of the broader worldwide war on terrorism. It won temporary permission from Congress earlier this year to use hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-drug aid directly against the anti-government guerrillas and other paramilitary forces, not just the drug crops and labs they protect and profit from.

Powell argued the policy shift was necessary because "these kinds of organizations are committed to destroying democracy in our hemisphere." He said the administration next year will seek permanent authority -- and additional money -- to directly aid the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war. Colombia already is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and is expected to receive $537 million in 2003, bringing total U.S. aid to Colombia to more than $1.8 billion since 2000.

"Our commitment has grown even stronger as we stand together against the threats of terrorism both our countries face," Powell said as he lavished praise on Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, and his political, economic and security agenda.

The State Department lists the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the 18,000-member Marxist-oriented insurgency is known, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group, as "foreign terrorist organizations," along with a smaller leftist guerrilla group. All are financed principally by proceeds from kidnappings and the illegal drug business that supplies 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States, and much of the heroin.

Powell's 22-hour trip here had been canceled twice in the past year but was put back on his schedule as Colombia assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month. By Sunday, Iraq is required to submit a declaration detailing the status of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, which will likely prompt critical debates within the council on how to respond.

"We would expect [Colombia] to administer the council in a responsible way," Powell said, permitting an "an open, full and comprehensive debate" on whether Iraq has met the terms of a Nov. 8 Security Council resolution strengthening the mandate of U.N. weapons inspectors and warning of "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to cooperate with them.

With 2,000 police maintaining heavy security throughout Bogota, Powell swept through a series of meetings with Uribe and senior Colombian officials, as well as representatives of human rights groups. He aimed to deliver a balanced message of praising the government while stressing that U.S. backing did not give the government license to abuse civil rights.

Powell praised Uribe as "a leader who's taking charge and is dealing with the problems that have faced Colombia for such a long period of time." But Powell said he made clear to Uribe that "there can be no tolerance for abuse of human rights of the kind that has been seen in the past."

A recent report by Human Rights Watch said Colombia's attorney general had undermined investigations of the paramilitary groups, which fight the guerrillas in tandem with the military. The United States has provided about $25 million to the attorney general's office and trained prosecutors, some of whom were fired by Luis Camilo Osorio, the attorney general.

Powell also toured a new anti-narcotics facility that houses helicopters and other equipment provided by the United States. He told reporters he was gathering information so he can make a better case for enhanced aid when he testifies before Congress next year.

In fiscal 2002, Colombia received $411 million in U.S. aid. That would grow more than 25 percent, to $537 million, under a fiscal 2003 proposal pending in Congress. Powell told Colombian officials he would seek even more money in the fiscal 2004 budget now being assembled by the administration.

"We are searching for ways to give support to Uribe across the board," said U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, citing enhanced intelligence as a key area under discussion.

Under the first phase of a new $129 million program approved by Congress this year, 23 U.S. military advisers arrived this week to train Colombian army troops to protect a 500-mile pipeline, operated by Occidental Petroleum Corp. of Los Angeles, that is a frequent guerrilla target, Patterson said. The total will grow to 60, most of them Special Forces, by the end of the year.

The United States has also provided 71 helicopters to the army and 61 to the police. Powell rejected suggestions that the growing U.S. involvement in Colombia is similar to the buildup that led to the Vietnam War. "I don't see a parallel, though the helicopters are remarkably familiar," said Powell, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company