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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 03:39 GMT
Colombia drugs war escalates
Colombian anti-narcotics unit in front of Blackhawk helicopter
US supplies the hardware in anti-drugs fight
By Jeremy McDermott in Colombia

It has emerged that pilots supplied by the United States to support anti-drugs efforts in Colombia were involved in a gunfight with rebels during a crop-spraying mission last Sunday.

The incident began when a police helicopter supporting the US-backed aerial fumigation programme crops was shot down by Marxist guerrillas in the southern province of Caqueta.

The guerrillas were firing from different positions... we had four helicopters firing from above

Luis Fernando Aristizabal, Colombian co-pilot

The crew of the downed aircraft were rescued by other helicopter gunships, some piloted by American citizens contracted by the US State Department.

Correspondents say the incident is likely to fuel allegations by the rebels that the US is directing the anti-drugs offensive in violation of Colombian sovereignty.

US involvement disputed

The guerrillas of the Farc, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have long asserted that the US is directly involved in fighting against them, citing the US spy plane with five American servicemen on board which crashed into the mountains of southern Colombia in 1999.

But US authorities have insisted that the 500 American military personnel stationed in Colombia are involved in training and monitoring only and never directly in combat.

The US aid package of $1.3bn was voted through Congress on the guarantee that US personnel would not get directly involved in the fighting.

The aid package is ostensibly for the war against drugs but since guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries are deeply involved in the narcotics trade, the drug war is synonymous with the civil conflict.

People picking coca crops in Colombia
Illegal drugs crops: livelihood for farmers, profits for rebels

But the same rules on combat do not seem to apply to sub-contractors hired by the US State Department.

Another Vietnam

This latest fighting over the weekend saw Americans paid by the US flying helicopter gunships that were used to put suppressing fire down on guerrillas whilst grounded crewmen were rescued.

The Farc have vowed to turn Colombia into another Vietnam for the US and have stated that all American military personnel in the country are considered targets.

Guerrilla sources have said they cannot see the difference between US service personnel and Americans in the pay of the US government.

They say that the United States has crossed the line and is intervening in the 37-year civil conflict.

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See also:

31 Jan 01 | Americas
Colombia extends rebel refuge
10 Feb 01 | Americas
Colombia peace talks to resume
02 Sep 00 | Americas
Colombian army suffers double blow
03 Sep 00 | Americas
Rebel attack in Colombia
09 Jun 00 | World
Drugs: A global business
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