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Bush responds to guerrilla attack
Simon Helweg-Larsen
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Increased US military presence in Colombia after rebels kill one US citizen and kidnap three more.

The Bush administration has increased US military involvement in the Colombian armed conflict following a rebel attack on US government employees. Responding to the death of one US citizen and the kidnapping of three others, Bush ordered additional troops to be deployed, taking the total number of US troops in Colombia over the congressional limit, a move which significantly alters the US role in the war.

On Feb. 13, a Cessna 208 intelligence operations plane carrying four civilian Pentagon employees and a member of the Colombian armed forces crashed in a remote part of the southern department of Caquetá. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) claim to have shot the plane down, but Colombian police say the Cessna came down because of technical problems. The FARC attacked the grounded plane, killing the Colombian and one US citizen and taking the three survivors hostage.

The Pentagon initially announced that Bush had pledged 150 troops for a search and rescue mission. That number has since been retracted, in favor of a smaller deployment with unspecified numbers. However, the Bush administration confirmed that the mission will bring the number of US soldiers in Colombia beyond the 400 allowed by Congress.

While Bush has the authority to exceed the congressional limit in the event of rescue missions, the current deployment fits a pattern of US involvement that suggests a premeditated escalation of military intervention.

The United States government has been increasing its involvement in the conflict for years, especially since providing US$1.3 billion in military aid under Plan Colombia in 2000 (LP, April 10, 2000). The Plan nominally targets narcotics production and export, but requires combat with guerrilla forces in coca regions and aerial spraying of peasant crops.

Military assistance and intervention in Colombia also serves to protect and increase US economic interests, especially oil production. Colombia is currently the seventh largest supplier of oil to the US, but only 20 percent of potential oil regions have been explored.

According to Stan Goff, a former US Special Forces intelligence sergeant retired from training Colombian anti-narcotic battalions, the purpose of Plan Colombia is "defending the operations of Occidental, British Petroleum and Texas Petroleum and securing control of future Colombian fields."

Until recently, cautious legislation forced the US to provide aid under the guise of a war on drugs, stopping short of overt protection of strategic areas and infrastructure.

The terms of US military involvement in Colombia have recently changed, however, as part of the global "war on terror." A Senate bill, signed into law on Aug. 2, 2002, states that all military and police aid to Colombia, past and present, should be allowed "to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to [Colombia´s] national security."

With restrictions on military aid lifted, the US immediately pledged $94 million to train and equip a "Critical Infrastructure Brigade" of the Colombian army, with the expressed purpose of protecting an oil pipeline owned largely by the California-based Occidental Petroleum. Seventy US troops from the 7th Special Forces Group arrived in early January to initiate this first direct military protection of American economic interests (LP, Jan. 15, 2003).

The recent death and capture of US citizens has turned out well for Bush’s apparent plan to increase direct military involvement in Colombia. The psychological preparation of US citizens at home is undoubtedly aided by a crisis involving compatriots and hostile rebels.

In addition, the mission will cross an important line in US involvement, marking the first time that US troops will take an active, non-training role in the conflict. Although the US Southern Command insists that the troops will be "assisting the Colombians who are doing the search and rescue" and will not participate in combat, the potential for armed engagement with the FARC is high. Should US troops fight the rebels, this would also mark the first instance of US combat in Colombia.

Recent attacks suggest that the FARC also intend to intensify the conflict. Since the collapse of peace talks in Feb. 2002 and the Colombian military’s invasion of a FARC demilitarized zone (LP, March 11, 2002), the rebels have adopted more provocative tactics.

The FARC have been blamed for an Aug. 7, 2002 mortar attack which killed 21 people near the inauguration ceremony of President Alvaro Uribe. In response, Uribe declared a national state of emergency and created two special zones of direct military rule.

As US Special Forces arrived in January, the rebels began a campaign of car bombs, directed mostly at military targets but killing many civilians as well.

In their attack on the US plane and its passengers, the FARC must have deliberately provoked a harsh response involving potential military intervention. "This is precisely what they wanted," said progressive Colombian congressman Gustavo Petro. "Now they can transform their senseless war into some sort of patriotic war."

While the FARC maintain they do not want a prisoner exchange, they made a March 3 announcement that they can only guarantee the lives of their US prisoners if the Colombian government suspends military operations and aerial surveillance in the vicinity of the crash site. Meanwhile, hundreds of Colombian soldiers and 49 US soldiers continue the search and rescue mission.

But as the US and the FARC intensify their actions and the wider conflict, civilians suffer. An average of 15 Colombians are killed daily as a result of political violence, the vast majority of them civilians. Many of these are union leaders, human rights workers, and other rights activists, targeted by paramilitaries and government forces. A further 1,600 people are driven from their homes on a daily basis as a result of the conflict.

Escalation of US military involvement in Colombia, whatever its stated purpose, may serve only to intensify the conflict and increase the suffering of ordinary Colombians.


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