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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Colombia 'used for terrorist training'
An ETA mural, reading: Our dreams
ETA rebels are suspected of helping FARC forces
International terrorist groups exploited a rebel-controlled safe haven in Colombia to create a new threat to international security, a US congressional inquiry has concluded.

Colombia is a potential breeding ground for international terror equalled perhaps only by Afghanistan

Committee report

The report says members of the IRA helped to train the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the guerrillas' former haven, together with members of groups from Cuba, Iran and possibly the Basque separatist organisation ETA.

And in a hearing on the report on Wednesday, House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde said there was evidence that IRA involvement extended beyond three Irishmen alleged to be members who were arrested last August.

He said the IRA was training the FARC in explosives techniques - which had already helped the group improve its urban terrorism - and had been in the country for the past three years.

However, in a statement on Wednesday the IRA denied any involvement with the FARC or any other group, and described the arrest of the three as an attempt to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process.

A preview of the report said: "Colombia is a potential breeding ground for international terror equalled perhaps only by Afghanistan...

"It is likely that in the former FARC safe haven, these terrorist groups had been sharing techniques, honing their terrorism skills, using illicit drug proceeds in payment and collectively helping to challenge the rule of law in Colombia."

Reassessment needed

The committee, which spent nine months carrying out the investigation, concludes that Washington should consider directing aid to fighting terrorism in Colombia, as well as drug-trafficking.

The arrests [of IRA suspects] illustrate a new and dangerous escalation in FARC's ability to carry out terrorist bombings as well as the reach of global terrorism into the Western hemisphere

Committee report
"As the forces of global terrorism, illicit drugs, and organised crime converge upon Colombia to produce new challenges to the international system, the United States must reassess its current policy permitting military assistance," it says.

The inquiry was launched after the three Irishmen - two from the Republic of Ireland and one from Northern Ireland - were arrested on suspicion of teaching bomb-making to FARC - which the US has designated a terrorist organisation.

"The arrests illustrate a new and dangerous escalation in FARC's ability to carry out terrorist bombings as well as the reach of global terrorism into the Western hemisphere," the report said.

Republican politicians and the Bush administration want new legislation to allow the US to extend its financial support to Colombia from fighting the war against drugs to fighting the war on terror.

President George W Bush has presented a budget request to Congress for $27bn to fight terrorism.

Sinn Fein invitation

The leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, declined an invitation to appear before the committee hearing.

Mr Adams sent a letter to the panel saying he had received legal advice that the hearing and his attendance at it could prejudice the trial of the three men arrested in Bogota.

Irishmen arrested in Colombia, from left: David Bracken, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley
The inquiry was launched after the arrest of three alleged terrorist trainers
Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, who face up to eight years in jail, deny being members of the IRA.

There has been an upsurge in violence in Colombia since peace talks between FARC and the government broke down earlier this year.

FARC and other rebel groups in Colombia are thought to be responsible for 90% of the cocaine and 70% of the heroin sold on America's streets.

Under "Plan Colombia", the US donates military hardware for Colombia to use against drug lords but it may not yet be used for other campaigns.

See also:

24 Apr 02 | Americas
Q&A: US involvement in Colombia
27 Feb 02 | Americas
Bush denies Colombia military aid
23 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein chief snubs US Congress
23 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Why Adams didn't go to Washington
16 Feb 02 | Americas
'IRA three' charged by Colombians
02 Dec 99 | Europe
ETA's bloody record
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