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Colombia's President Discusses Military Aid with US Lawmakers - 2002-04-17

Colombia's President Andres Pastrana met with U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to ask them to lift restrictions on U.S. military aid to his country. The talks came on the eve of his meeting with President Bush at the White House.

Mr. Pastrana would like Congress to remove restrictions that prevent his country from using U.S. anti-drug aid including U.S. helicopters to fight leftist guerrillas.

Peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC, collapsed in February. Recent bombings blamed on FARC have struck major cities and targeted Mr. Pastrana's likely successor in next month's elections, Alvaro Uribe.

The Bush administration has pledged to expand military aid to Colombia to help in its counter-insurgency campaign, and has asked Congress to change the law that restricts U.S. aid to anti-drug efforts.

Although some lawmakers are concerned deeper U.S. military involvement in Colombia could lead to a Vietnam War-like quagmire, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden told reporters after meeting with Mr. Pastrana that he is prepared to back the administration's proposal. Mr. Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, said, "I indicated I personally not only have an open mind, I am inclined to support it."

Over the past two years, Congress has approved nearly $2 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia - but only for use in anti-drug efforts.

The Bush administration is asking for $439 million for Colombia in next year's budget to assist that country's military, police, democracy and human rights programs.

Earlier, Mr. Pastrana met with Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle to discuss renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which expired last December. Mr. Daschle expressed hope the bill which the House has already passed could come up for a vote before the end of next month.

Mr. Pastrana also met with House bipartisan leaders, and visited the Pentagon for talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.