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Sunday, 21 July, 2002, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Colombia conflict set for bloodiest phase
Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe
Uribe enjoys good relations with the US

As president-elect Alvaro Uribe prepares to take office on 7 August, the United States is ensuring that American military aid to Colombia will be ready to help him fulfil his campaign promise of getting tough on the country's warring factions.

Colombian troops have been trained by US elite forces
There was no disguising the enthusiasm with which the US welcomed the election victory of Alvaro Uribe in May.

The US ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, was there to congratulate the bespectacled 49-year-old lawyer before the final results were even announced.

That was followed with unseemly haste by a visit to Colombia of President Bush's point man on Latin America, hardliner Otto Reich.

He recently wrote a column in the Washington Times, saying: "Our values, our security and the future of our hemisphere are tied to Colombia's victory in its war against terror."

Washington was never thrilled with the Pastrana peace process

Relations with the outgoing President, Andres Pastrana, have been very warm, resulting in Colombia becoming the third largest recipient of US military in the world.

But Washington was never thrilled with the Pastrana peace process which saw sweeping concessions given to the country's Marxist rebels in return for escalating levels of violence.

Mr Uribe's talk of getting tough with the warring factions and their involvement in the drugs trade was music to the ears of the Bush administration which has embraced the incoming president as its latest partner in the war on terrorism.

Vietnam fear

The US Senate Appropriations Committee has just approved next year's aid package to the Andean region, most for Colombia, dropping the restrictions that US military aid be used solely for the war on drugs and granting $440m to Colombia.

This was followed by the US Congress lifting the restrictions on existing military aid, some 70 helicopters and an elite US-trained brigade.

The gloves are about to come off against left-wing rebels

Up until now, aid to Colombia - particularly the $1.3bn granted by President Clinton - was limited to the war on drugs, the only way to get the package through a US Congress mindful of the history of Vietnam and unwilling to get dragged into Colombia's intractable 38-year civil conflict.

But in the post-11 September political atmosphere, the all-embracing war on terrorism has made the distinctions between counter-drug and counter-insurgent operations redundant; the US is about to take off the gloves and get stuck into Colombia's civil conflict, drawing the line at committing American ground troops.

Next year's $440m is earmarked for the creation of a second anti-narcotics brigade to join the one formed in 2000 with money granted by President Clinton.

This elite brigade will be trained by US Special Forces and equipped with US helicopters. Another brigade will be trained to provide security for a major oil pipeline that has been the target of guerrilla attacks.

Drugs cash

Under pressure from human rights groups, which have said the US aid will only be used against Marxist guerrillas and not right-wing paramilitaries - who are guilty of some of the worst atrocities and human rights abuses - a portion of the money will be used to create an elite unit to pursue the right-wing death squads.

It would be misleading to indicate that all US aid to Colombia is military.

USaid is providing $560m over the next five years aimed at improving the judiciary and government transparency, to support peace initiatives and offer alternatives to the growing of drug crops.

It would also be misleading to think that this US military aid is going to result in the country's warring factions being defeated any time soon.

On the contrary, the Marxist rebel groups between them control almost half the country and are stronger than ever before, flush with money from the drugs trade and kidnapping, while their right-wing paramilitary foes are growing and spreading their deadly tentacles across the country.

So Mr Uribe faces a formidable challenge as he prepares to take power.

The US may be standing at his shoulder, but this has not daunted - but rather encouraged - the Marxist guerrillas who have promised a warm welcome for the hard-line president.

The civil conflict looks set to enter its bloodiest phase to date and the US is throwing plenty of bones to the dogs of war.

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See also:

27 May 02 | Americas
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