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Bush Administration Seeks Broader Military Assistance for Colombia - 2002-03-23

The Bush administration has officially asked Congress to allow U.S. military aid to Colombia, until now limited to anti-narcotics operations, to also be used against the country's left-wing insurgents and far-right paramilitary groups. But it would leave in place some key Congressionally-imposed limits on the U.S. aid program.

Administration officials say that with Colombia's left-wing insurgents working closely with drug traffickers it is all but impossible to differentiate between the two.

And in its request to Congress, the White House is asking that U.S. military aid previously restricted to the drug fight be available to support what is termed Colombia's "unified campaign" against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activity and other threats to its national security.

The long-expected bid for a change in the Congressional guidelines was included in a White House request to Congress Friday for more than $27 billion in additional funds for the current fiscal year to cover costs of the war against terrorism and homeland security.

The Bush administration has increasingly depicted the Colombian government's struggle as an anti-terrorist effort and indeed three Colombian armed groups appear on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations the main leftwing insurgent group FARC, the smaller leftist group ELN, and the rightwing AUC paramilitary organization.

After the breakdown of President Andres Pastrana's peace initiative with the FARC last month, the administration agreed to speed up deliveries of military spare parts and to increase intelligence-sharing with Bogota authorities. But it said it was inhibited from doing much more because of the Congressional restrictions in place since late in the Clinton administration.

Briefing reporters on the requested change, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the administration wants "more explicit" authority for the aid program. But he stressed it will continue to abide by key Congressional amendments limiting the number of U.S. military trainers in Colombia and barring any U.S. aid to Colombian military units linked to human rights abuses. "We expect to keep within the Byrd Amendment limits that specify a maximum of 400 military and 400 civilian personnel at any given moment. So we intend to abide by that," he said. "And the Leahy amendment also says that U.S. assistance cannot be given to military units that contain human rights violators, and requires human rights certifications from the Department of State. We also intend to abide by that."

In addition to the revised language, the administration is also asking in the supplemental budget request for $35 million in additional aid for Colombia this year most of it to help train Colombian forces in anti-kidnap tactics given the wave of abductions by guerrilla and drug groups.

But $6 million is aimed at giving a so-called "jump start" to a training program to help Colombian forces protect the country's biggest oil pipeline which has been frequently shut down by attacks by FARC guerrillas, causing serious harm to the national economy.

The administration is asking for $570 million in aid for Colombia for the 2003 fiscal year, of which nearly $100 million is earmarked for pipeline protection.

The Republican-led House of Representatives has already approved a non-binding resolution supporting a broader mandate for the aid program, but many Democrats are wary about a possible Vietnam-style U.S. involvement in the Colombian conflict. The White House says there is no intention to involve U.S. troops in the fighting.