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US Voices Support for Colombia's Fight Against Rebels - 2002-02-26


U.S. officials are working with Colombia's government to see how Washington can help in the renewed fight against Colombian rebels. The White House is voicing its support for Colombian President Andres Pastrana's tough stance on the rebels.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says senior U.S. officials are consulting with Colombia's government to see how the Bush administration can best help in the fight against rebels. That may include increased information sharing and faster delivery of spare parts for U.S. helicopters.

Mr. Fleischer would not rule out increasing military assistance to Colombia, but did say the administration is mindful of legal restraints on its options. There is an existing ban on U.S. military assistance to Colombia that prohibits support for any operation other than those designed to fight drug production and traficking.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana last week cancelled three years of peace talks with members of the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC after they hijacked a civilian jetliner. In 1998, the president gave rebels a safe haven the size of Switzerland, to convince them to join peace talks. Now he has sent Colombia's army in to recapture the rebel zone.

Mr. Fleischer says President Bush supports President Pastana's "action and determination," saying the rebels' hijacking and kidnappings shows the FARC is only "interested in pursuing terror."

"Regrettably, the goodwill of the Pastrana government and of the Colombian people has not been reciprocated by the FARC," he said. "FARC terrorist actions, including the attacks that have taken place on civilians, the hijacking of an airplane, the kidnapping of a state senator, their use of the DMZ in Colombia for drug trafficking - all are a real affront to people who seek peace in Colombia."

President Pastrana is demanding the immediate release of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt who was kidnapped Saturday as she drove toward an embattled rebel stronghold in the south. FARC fighters have responded to a government offensive in the area by targeting power and telephone lines that have led to black-outs or power rationing in at least 56 towns.

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