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US Bans Aid to Colombian Air Force Unit - 2003-01-14

The United States is banning aid to an elite Colombian air force unit that is under investigation in that country for a bombing incident in 1998 that killed 18 civilians. The State Department says the slow pace of the investigation raises questions about the commitment of Colombia's air force to find the facts in the case.

The Colombian air force unit in question, the 1st Combat Command, is currently getting no direct U.S. aid but the decision announced here has a high symbolic value and will disqualify it from future assistance in a growing Bush administration effort to help Colombia deal with narco-trafficking and terrorism.

The incident in question occurred in December 1998 when a Colombian helicopter crew belonging to the 1st Combat Command dropped a U.S.-made cluster bomb in the village of Santo Domingo, near the Venezuelan border, in an operation against leftist insurgents said to have been operating in the area.

The bombing killed 18 civilians and wounded dozens more and has been the subject of a long running military investigation marked by allegations of non-cooperation and stalling by air force officers. At a State Department briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher made clear U.S. frustration over the pace and conduct of the investigation.

"The Santo Domingo tragedy occurred over four years ago. The prolonged investigation has raised questions about the Colombian air force's commitment to determine the facts, and we think damages the reputation of Colombia's air force," he said. "We have not prejudiced the criminal responsibility of the Colombian air force members currently under investigation in this case. We support due process and we expect a just ruling based on objective facts."

Colombia's air force chief, General Hector Velasco, has denied air force responsibility for the deaths, at first saying that a guerrilla car bomb killed the villagers, and later suggesting the evidence of a cluster bomb had been planted at the site.

The Colombian helicopter crewmen, meanwhile, have told military investigators they were guided to the bombing site by U.S. civilian pilots flying an anti-insurgent surveillance mission under contract to the government.

Colombia has received nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid in recent years, most of it earmarked for anti-narcotics activities. The Bush administration has gotten Congress to ease restrictions so that some aid can be used in anti insurgent operations, including protection of a strategic oil pipeline that has been frequently attacked and shut down by guerrillas.

Under the so-called Leahy amendment from Congress, U.S. aid can go only to Colombian military units that have been certified as being free of human rights violations or are actively taking steps to bring suspected violators to justice.

At least three Colombian army units have been barred from receiving U.S. aid but the decision announced Tuesday marks the first time that an air force unit has been penalized.

Spokesman Boucher called the action a "serious move" that sends a very clear message that the United States expects the bombing case to be resolved in a way that is transparent, open, and brings out all the facts.

He said Secretary of State Colin Powell raised U.S. concerns about the affair with top Colombian officials when he visited Bogota last month.