Washington Debates Aid to Colombia

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP)— Their ammunition spent, 13 Colombian police officers raised their hands and surrendered to guerrillas who had attacked a small mountain town. One by one, they were shot to death.

Just miles away, U.S. Black Hawk helicopters provided to the police for anti-drug missions remained on the ground. They were never called in to help the officers.

Whether they could have been used has raised delicate questions following the approval of a $1.3 billion Colombian anti-narcotics aid package: Can U.S.-provided anti-drug helicopters be used for missions that aren't directly related to drugs? And if so, could that push the United States deeper into Colombia's civil war?

The police killings prompted the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman, to write to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, expressing concern that the helicopters hadn't been used because U.S. restrictions.

Both U.S. and Colombian officials denied that was the case. Colombian National Police Chief Ernesto Gilibert said helicopters hadn't been deployed because they weren't equipped to fly at night.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. policy allows Colombia to use the helicopters ``for humanitarian purposes to prevent a loss of life and to provide evacuation.''

The United States regularly reviews helicopter flight records to make sure helicopter use complies with U.S. guidelines, the official said. To date, Colombia has consistently met those guidelines.

The issue is sensitive from two sides. On one side is Gilman, who supports the Colombian aid, and wants to see the United States help the Colombian National Police as much as it can.

On the other side are opponents of the aid, skeptical that it can be limited to the drug fight without having the United States get drawn into Colombia's 36-year war with leftist guerrillas.

The $1.3 billion package signed by President Clinton on July 13 will provide helicopters and other assistance to Colombian army counternarcotics battalions. Those battalions will fight guerrillas, who are financing their insurgency by protecting drug producers.

The package will also shift the focus of U.S. aid from the police, whose main task is fighting drugs, to the army, whose main task is fighting guerrillas.

U.S. officials have insisted they will not cross the line between fighting drug trafficking and fighting the rebels. Opponents say that's a tough distinction to make.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said the concerns raised by Gilman ``speak to the whole problem that there's very little clarity about rules of combat.''

``It's very unclear what's counternarcotics and what's counterinsurgency. We're going to have over and over and over again many examples like this,'' he said.

The July 15 attack in the southwestern Colombia town of Roncesvalles did not appear to be tied to any counternarcotics operation. The officers spent 27 hours fighting off an attack by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, according to police. When they ran out of ammunition, they tried to surrender. Each officer was shot point-blank in the head.

John Mackey, an aide to Gilman, said Colombian police officials told him they were reluctant to use the Black Hawks because they thought they were restricted to counternarcotics operations.

But the Colombian police chief said there was no question they could have been used.

``When we need to use them for humanitarian purposes, we're not going to hesitate in doing so. What's more, we've already done so,'' Gen. Ernesto Gilibert told reporters.

He said the U.S. rules are clear about when the helicopters, which are flown by Colombian pilots, can be used.

``We're not going to use them to attack a guerrilla group, but, yes, we can use them to defend ourselves.''

On Sunday, U.S.-provided helicopters were used to carry police and troops to the remote mountain town of Arboleda, where rebels had attacked a police station. As many as 22 policemen may have been killed.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday that the helicopters were ``in the right location'' with the forces that were going to try to rescue the police.

``The U.S. supplied aircraft are generally permitted to conduct such rescue flights and search and rescue missions in addition to their normal counter-narcotics responsibilities,'' he said. ``So that was very much in keeping with the standard practice.''