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US Official to Lay Groundwork for Cooperation with New Colombian President - 2002-05-28

The State Department's top diplomat for Latin America is preparing to go to Colombia shortly to open a dialogue with that country's new president-elect, Alvaro Uribe. The Bush administration is signaling, in advance of the mission, its support for Mr. Uribe's tough approach to the country's long-running leftist insurgency.

A senior State Department official says Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich will visit to Colombia in a few days to discuss with Mr. Uribe his plans for governing the country and how the United States can support him.

Mr. Uribe, a U.S.-educated political independent, swept to victory in Colombia's presidential election Sunday on a campaign platform that included doubling the size of the country's military to put an end to Colombia's nearly-40-year-old insurgency.

At a briefing here, the senior official, who spoke on condition he not be further identified, congratulated outgoing Colombian President Andres Pastrana for his conduct of the vote despite the country's security situation.

He said the United States looks forward to working with Mr. Uribe, who will be inaugurated August 7, and said Mr. Reich will lay groundwork for that cooperation.

The senior official reiterated the long-held U.S. view that the best solution to the Colombian conflict in a negotiated one.

He said he believed one reason for Mr. Uribe's strong election showing was his realization that the way to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table was to make them realize they cannot win militarily.

He also made clear the United States has no objection to Mr. Uribe's reported intention to try to bring far-right paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, into peace talks.

"We see absolutely nothing wrong," he said, "with trying to reduce the violence and eliminate a potential threat to the stability of Colombia" and added the United States believes the AUC poses such a threat.

The Bush administration has included the AUC, along with the country's two main leftwing insurgent groups, the FARC and the ELN, on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist groups, and has increasingly depicted the Colombian government's conflict with the groups as an anti-terrorist struggle.

The United States has provided Colombia with $1.7 billion in aid the last two years and the senior official said the White House is open to discussing further assistance as well as help in refinancing the country's international debt.

He stressed the importance of the Bush administration's recent request for nearly $100 million to help Colombia defend the strategic Cano-Limon oil pipeline to the Caribbean.

He said the frequent attacks by the FARC and ELN on the pipeline are costing the Colombian government $500 million a year in revenues, and causing oil spills over the years cumulatively seven times as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska.