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Administration Shifts Focus on Colombia Aid
JUAN FORERO . NY Times . 6 february 2002

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Feb. 5 — The Bush administration is proposing to expand military aid to this war- racked nation by training the Colombian Army to protect a 500-mile-long oil pipeline from leftist rebels, senior American officials visiting Colombia said today. Such a program would be a sharp departure from a policy that until now has focused on eradicating drugs.

The administration is seeking Congressional approval of a $98 million request that would pay for helicopters, communications equipment and training for Colombian troops to guard the Caño Limón pipeline, which transports crude oil pumped by Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles from the country's eastern oil fields to a Caribbean port.

"We are not saying this is counterdrug — this is different," said a member of an American delegation here in a meeting with reporters in a Bogotá hotel. "The proposition we are making to the government of Colombia and to our Congress is that we ought to take an additional step."

The administration is also asking Congress to provide financing for American training of a counternarcotics brigade that would operate in northern Colombia, a region under the influence of right-wing paramilitary groups, the officials said. The money for that would come from the $731 million the administration is requesting in anti-narcotics programs for the Andean region for 2003.

Pipeline protection is crucial, American officials said, because oil is Colombia's largest money-making export and provides much-needed income for a country hobbled by a brutal 38-year-old rebel conflict.

The pipeline has been the target of rebels who see Occidental as an exploiter of Colombian resources. It was bombed 170 times last year, costing Colombia and the company more than $500 million, Colombia's state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, said today. Since 1986, when the first attack was recorded, more than 2.6 million barrels of oil have been spilled.

Until now, American policy has focused on aerial spraying of coca and opium poppy fields, as well as programs aimed at encouraging farmers to shift to other crops. The money for those programs came through a $1.3 billion aid package allocated in 2000 for the Andean region, most for training and equipping a Colombian Army brigade of 3,000 men that now takes part in counterdrug operations in the south.

"Everything else up until now has been justified in terms of fighting drugs," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow who follows Colombia for the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy analysis organization in Washington. "This is a different purpose. I think that is a departure."

The administration's request is sure to be vigorously opposed by some members of Congress who are concerned that the United States could be drawn deeper into a murky conflict involving two rebel groups and a paramilitary group responsible for widespread mass killings.

"For the first time, the administration is proposing to cross the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee. "This is no longer about stopping drugs, it's about fighting the guerrillas.

Human rights groups in the United States also harshly criticized the plan, releasing an extensive report today highlighting ties between army units and the paramilitaries. American law requires that Colombia show it has severed ties between security officials and paramilitary gunmen before receiving aid, a condition that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said had not been met by Colombia's government.

The proposal, however, was warmly received by President Andrés Pastrana and senior Colombian officials, who have been pleading for more American aid. Today, they met with the American delegation, here to review American policy toward Colombia and to meet with Colombian officials. The delegation is headed by Marc Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs.