Activists Protest Expanding Aid to Colombia

More than 30 human rights, policy, and church groups have urged the administration of United States President George W. Bush not to expand US aid to the Colombian army in the wake of the collapse of a three-year-old peace process late last week.

In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the groups specifically asked that none of the helicopters provided by Washington over the past two years to the army be used to retake the guerrilla-controlled demilitarized zone (DMZ) into which the army began moving over the weekend.

But early reaction by the administration to the end of the peace process -- which included an announcement by the State Department Friday that it is rushing spare parts to the country's army and working on ways to provide military intelligence to the army on guerrilla movements throughout Colombia -- suggested that Washington fully intends to expand its assistance to Colombia's military in the coming weeks and months.

A Department spokesman Monday accused Colombia's most prominent rebel group, the FARC, of committing "over a hundred terrorist acts" in recent weeks and strongly condemned its kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt over the weekend after she tried to enter the DMZ with a group of reporters.

President Andres Pastrana, who launched the peace process amid high hopes three and a half years ago, ordered the army into the DMZ after the FARC hijacked a civilian airliner and abducted one of its passengers, the chairman of the Colombian Senate's Peace Commission, Senator Jorge Gechen Turbay.

The civil war in Colombia, which dates back to the 1960s, has pitted the FARC and a second, smaller rebel group, against the Colombian armed forces, as well as right-wing paramilitary armies which are backed by powerful business interests and some military officers, according to international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Due to the army's history of rights abuses, as well as its links to the paramilitaries who have been responsible for most of the mass killings which have increased in recent years, the US Congress has restricted military aid to the army's counter-drug operations in Colombia and has forbidden its use for counter-insurgency purposes.

In practice, however, the line between counter-drug and counterinsurgency aid has been blurred since Congress approved US $1.3 billion in aid for "Plan Colombia" two years ago. Much of the money was to be used to help the army gain control over coca-growing regions in southern Colombia, most of which was held by the FARC.

In addition, even before the collapse of the peace process last week, the administration had asked Congress to approve some US $250 million more in military aid, including US $98 million to train and supply new army brigades to protect an oil pipeline owned by the US corporation Occidental.

Washington currently has about 250 military and intelligence personnel deployed in Colombia to assist the anti-drug effort. A broader campaign, which would include intelligence sharing on guerrilla movements in Colombia as well as training and other support for the protection of the pipeline, could require a larger US presence, according to analysts in Washington.

In their letter to Powell, the 31 groups -- including the Washington Office in Latin America, Global Exchange, the Center for International Policy, and the National Council of Churches -- called on the administration to "use all possible means to ensure" that the civilian population in the DMZ was protected against possible reprisals by the army and paramilitary forces.

The groups, which also include about a dozen church relief organizations, asked Powell to ensure "that no US military equipment or U.S.-funded battalions are used in the operation to retake the DMZ."

"We call on the United States government to clearly express its support for a negotiated settlement," the letter said. "Both sides are convinced of their own ability to win a war, however the most likely outcome is an intensified stalemate with devastating consequences for the civilian population."

Reports in the last several days suggest that the FARC has abandoned the major towns in the DMZ without a fight and retreated to strongholds in the mountains to prepare for its next move in the insurgency. It has also reportedly offered to exchange Betancourt for captured rebel soldiers.

Check out in-depth news coverage of Plan Colombia at OneWorld.net. The Center for International Policy also offers an detailed analysis of current U.S. aid to Colombia, including the latest budget request submitted by the Bush Administration last month.

For the Colombian government's human rights record, read the certification report released by Human Rights Watch early this month.

You can write a letter to Colin Powell urging him to investigate whether US aid is being used against the rebel forces.

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