Top U.S. officials visit Colombia as Bush proposes aid to protect pipeline

Tuesday, February 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A delegation from the Bush administration is in Colombia for meetings with the country's president as Washington considers expanding military aid by $98 million to help protect an oil pipeline from guerrilla violence.

The U.S. delegation is set to meet with Colombian President Andres Pastrana after Bush proposed the aid to train and equip Colombian soldiers to protect the Cano-Limon pipeline, a frequent target of leftist guerrillas.

The delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, also will meet with Defense Minister Gustavo Bell during the three-day visit that began Monday, the U.S. Embassy said.

The last time Grossman visited Colombia was a week before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. At that time, top U.S. officials ruled out U.S. backing for counterinsurgency warfare in Colombia.

However, Pastrana _ who is to meet with the U.S. officials on Tuesday _ said recently that ``the world changed on Sept. 11.''

``The common enemy is terrorism,'' said Pastrana, who called for U.S. troops to train Colombian soldiers to protect the infrastructure from rebels.

Rebel sabotage of U.S. and Colombian oil operations prevented the production of more than 24 million barrels of crude last year, according to state oil company Ecopetrol. Colombia is the 10th-biggest supplier of oil to the United States.

The attacks put the pipeline out of service for 266 days last year and caused significant economic damage to Colombia and to American oil companies using the pipeline.

The $98 million is part of a proposed $731 million in counter-narcotics aid for the Andean region in 2003. The funds are part of the administration's proposed budget for the fiscal year starting in October.

Until now, U.S. funds designated for the Colombian military have been earmarked for counter-narcotics efforts. The U.S. assistance has funded the training of three counter-narcotics battalions and the purchase of high performance helicopters.

Curt Struble, a deputy assistant secretary of state, denied that the aid request constitutes a policy shift. He said American assistance to Colombia also attempts to help the country's social and economic development.

The U.S. delegation also includes Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich; the State Department's top anti-drug official, Rand Beers; and the acting head of U.S. military operations in Latin America, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer.

The visit comes as Colombian rebels increase attacks on Colombia's infrastructure. Several towns have suffered power cuts after the country's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, dynamited dozens of electrical towers last month. The rebels also bombed a major oil pipeline and a reservoir providing water to the capital.

The attacks have fed growing public pressure for the government to adopt a tougher line toward the guerrillas.

According to a poll published Monday, 57 percent of Colombians believe that if peace talks with the FARC fail, the military should go on the offensive against the rebels _ and 31 percent said they want foreign troops to help wage that war.

Washington, which has deployed special forces to train Colombian anti-drug soldiers and is providing dozens of combat helicopters, insists U.S. troops will never fight on Colombian soil.