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Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Reclaiming Colombia from the rebels
Colombia troops
Uribe has given the army sweeping powers

The reconquest of Colombia has begun.

Hard-line President Alvaro Uribe has moved his country onto a war footing and headed up to Washington to enrol Colombia in the US "war on terrorism".

And to ask President George W Bush to wade deeper into the quagmire of Colombia's 38-year civil conflict.


The president is hoping that his tough measures in Colombia will find echo with Mr Bush's tough rhetoric in Washington and that the US will provide more training, hardware, intelligence and money

Military official
Three of the Colombia's provinces have been selected as the start point for the state's reconquest of the country.

One of them, Arauca, has been designated a "Zone of Rehabilitation and Consolidation".

This gives the security forces unprecedented powers - to arrest without warrant, impose curfews, search property and restrict movement.

Their orders are clear - re-establish the authority of the state and clean out the camps of the rebels and paramilitaries.

Crucial timing

To emphasise the permanent nature of the reconquest, Defence Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez said that the action is not just about the military, but involves all organs of the state.

President Alvaro Uribe
Uribe is joining Bush's war on terror

"It is necessary to clarify that these zones will not just have military presence, but the state will also be bringing health, education and employment programmes," Ms Ramirez said.

And it is perhaps no coincidence that these measures have been introduced just as Mr Uribe is in Washington to visit the White House.

Quid pro quo

Mr Bush, as he toughens his rhetoric over Iraq and unveils the new US national security policy, has already indicated he is prepared the back Colombia in its war on rebel groups, three of which are on the US terrorism list.

But only so long as Colombia helps itself by increasing its own defence spending and taking serious measures to improve security.

Workers harvesting coca leaves
Arauca is covered in coca plants

Well Mr Uribe has certainly done that. In the six weeks since he took office he has raised taxes, sending every extra peso he can squeeze from a squealing exchequer into the military.

He has established a civilian spy network and system of rewards for informants, is arming peasants in vulnerable areas of the country and has given the security forces sweeping powers.

US interests

"The president is hoping that his tough measures in Colombia will find echo with Mr Bush's tough rhetoric in Washington and that the US will provide more training, hardware, intelligence and money," said a military source on condition of anonymity.

President Bush
Bush will only offer support if Colombia works to beat the rebels too
It is also no coincidence that Arauca has been chosen as one of the first areas to be subjected to these new conditions.

It is here that US interests are most obviously represented, not just because the area is carpeted in coca crops, the raw material for cocaine, of which more than 500 tons wash up on US shores every year, but because under the soil is the equally lucrative resource of oil.

Arauca's biggest oil field, Caņo Limon, is being exploited by the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum.

Financial aid

In the last aid package announced by Mr Bush almost $100 million was given for the training of a brigade to protect the Caņo Limon pipeline which was blown up by Marxist rebels 170 times last year.

US Green Berets arrive in Arauca next month to start the training programme.

This was the first package of US military aid designed for counter-insurgency rather than the campaign against the drugs trade, and the Uribe administration is hoping that this can be the first of a series of US initiatives to help beleaguered army units across the country.

So on Wednesday Mr Uribe will tell Mr Bush that Colombia is serious about its war on terrorism, but needs yet more help to defeat the guerrillas and paramilitaries, and Mr Bush will be hard pushed to refuse.


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