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Powell: No US Combat Role In Colombia - 2002-03-07

Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Congressional panel Wednesday the Bush administration is considering an expansion of U.S. military aid to Colombia to help the government battle leftwing insurgents. That would require a change in the law from Congress limiting U.S. aid to counter-narcotics efforts.

Mr. Powell says there no scenarios under consideration that would involve an active combat role by U.S. forces in Colombia. But he said the administration is considering asking Congress to change the ground-rules, and expand U.S. assistance beyond counter-narcotics help, in light of last month's breakdown of the peace process between the Bogota government and insurgents led by the leftwing guerrilla group FARC.

Appearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee, Mr. Powell said the circumstances of the Colombian conflict have changed with the failure of President Andres Pastrana's peace initiative and his decision to revoke the safe-havens granted to the guerrillas.

He said Colombian democracy is fighting for its survival against both insurgents and narco-traffickers and said it is "reasonable" for the administration to be re-examining its aid policy.

"The president has made no decisions and has received no recommendations but it may be necessary for us to give the government of Colombia additional support that is outside the counter-narcotics basket in order that they are able to deal with their threat to their survival as a nation, this threat to their economic well-being," added Mr. Powell. "And once we have completed this review, we will come up to the Congress and ask for whatever we believe is necessary. Right now we are staying within the limit of the law. But is clear that the kinds of things that we are being asked to provide to assist the Colombian government, such as more intelligence information, things of that nature, will quickly run into the wall, the legislative wall that is there."

Mr. Powell was responding to comments from Democratic House member Jose Serrano of New York, who warned of a Vietnam-style U.S. involvement in Colombia.

Mr. Serrano also questioned the administration's characterization of FARC and other Colombian guerrillas as terrorists especially in the emotionally-charged atmosphere following last year's terror attacks in the United States. "There's not a single American who says we should not get rid of every terrorist," he said. "But now it seems to some that the word terrorist could be at times loosely-used to allow us involvement that we should be analyzing in different ways. This is a civil war. You and I grew up with the situation militarily [Vietnam] where there was a civil war that we got involved in. And we honor all the folks that are there. But we spend so much time now wondering, you know, what was the involvement and what the involvement should have been. All that to say, Mr. Secretary, that we have to be careful to [not] get involved in Colombia in a civil war that we can't get out of."

Mr. Powell told the congressman he has "no doubt" that the inclusion of FARC on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist groups is justified, noting its recent hijacking of a Colombian airliner and the kidnapping and murder of a legislator.

The U.S. terrorist list also includes the leftist ELN faction and the rightwing paramilitary organization, the AUC, which has often operated in parallel with government forces and been linked to human rights abuses.

The secretary said President Pastrana has been told, - as will his successor to be elected later this year - that if the paramilitaries are given a free hand, it will be "destructive" of U.S. efforts to assist the government.