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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 23:38 GMT
Bush denies Colombia military aid
Colombian troops
Government forces are advancing through rebel areas
US President George W Bush has turned down a Colombian request for American military assistance in its offensive against left-wing rebels.


We are providing advice to the Colombian government as to drug eradication and we will keep it that way. The law is very clear

President Bush
Mr Bush, however, said he backed Colombia's action against the FARC rebels in the south of the country, where troops are continuing to advance through rebel areas.

But he said current American legislation limited the United States to helping Colombia try to eradicate illegal drug crops.

The decision is a setback for Colombia's President, Andres Pastrana, who had hoped to use military hardware donated by the Americans against rebels, correspondents say.

Rebels at large

Government troops have meanwhile been moving through the rebels' former safe haven, where FARC guerrillas remain active.

The government had allowed the guerrillas to control the area until peace talks between the two sides collapsed last week.

Mr Pastrana has been pressing Washington to allow Colombian forces to use US military hardware intended for the campaign against drugs, such as Black Hawk helicopters, in its fight against the FARC.

Click here for a map of the former FARC safe haven

Mr Bush refused his request, however, although the US State Department lists the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a terrorist organisation.

"I applaud the efforts of their president... to bring order to the country, but we are restricted by law and I intend to adhere to that law," Mr Bush said during a visit to North Carolina.

George W Bush
Bush supports Mr Pastrana's actions

"We do have legal constraints. We are providing advice to the Colombian government as to drug eradication and we will keep it that way. The law is very clear."

In Florencia, located just outside the former rebel safe haven, rebels have blown up the power lines and telecommunications towers.

Terror

Lorry drivers are reluctant to leave the town because they fear attack by rebels, and supplies of food and fuel are consequently running low.

Ingrid Betancourt
Betancourt was kidnapped at the weekend

"No one dares leave town out of fear the guerrillas might burn your vehicle," said one lorry driver.

The United Nations refugee agency is preparing for a possible exodus of Colombians fleeing violence between the security forces and left-wing rebels.

Regional fears

The United Nations refugee agency is working with authorities and aid agencies in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela in case an escalation in the internal conflict in Colombia triggers a regional humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile there are renewed fears for the safety of a Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped at the weekend by FARC rebels.

A rebel spokesman told American television Ms Betancourt would only be freed when hundreds of jailed colleagues were released from prison.

In response the government has repeated that it not discuss exchanging rebel prisoners for politicians being held hostage by FARC guerrillas.



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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tom Carver
"The war on drugs has joined the war on terrorism"
See also:

22 Feb 02 | Media reports
Colombia's press warns of grim times
21 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombian army moves against rebels
19 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombia thwarts rebel dam attack
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
15 Feb 02 | Americas
Timeline: Colombia
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