WASHINGTON The Bush administration, eager to help the Colombian military's escalating war with leftist rebels, is contemplating increased intelligence sharing and a speedup in the delivery of spare parts for U.S. helicopters.
Senior officials said, however, that no combat role is envisioned for U.S. forces in Colombia, and they noted that Congress has imposed sharp limits on U.S. involvement in the country's long-running civil war.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that President Andres Pastrana had shown "enormous patience over a long period of time" in trying to bring rebels to the negotiating table.
"And he's been rebuffed. ... He finally felt he could go no further and he had a responsibility to the people of Colombia to protect them," Powell said. "We understand the decision he made. We support him."
Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration is "looking at specific ways to continue to support Colombia during this difficult period." He did not elaborate.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack, in Beijing with President Bush, was asked if U.S. military action is possible. He replied: "We are mindful of the legal constraints on our assistance, which we will respect."
Otto Reich, the State Department's top official for Latin America, said Thursday night a combat role for U.S. troops is out of the question.
"The Colombian government has not asked for them. In our opinion they are not necessary," he said in an interview with Telemundo, a U.S.-based Spanish-language television network.
Reich said he was unaware of any consultation between the United States and Colombian governments before Thursday's events.
The administration has been contemplating a more assertive role in the South American nation for several months, sensing that Colombian democracy was in trouble.
Virtually all U.S. military aid for the past several years machine guns, combat helicopters and hundreds of military and civilian advisers has been earmarked for Colombian counternarcotics efforts. The administration disclosed in early February that it wants $98 million to train and equip Colombian soldiers to protect an oil pipeline that has been repeatedly blown up by Colombian rebels.
That would amount to an expansion of U.S. involvement. One official said the Colombian troops, once ready for action, could be used to protect other potential targets beyond the pipeline.
The administration assistance request for Colombia this year is $537 million, mostly for fighting the illegal drug trade.
The Bush administration, while questioning President Pastrana's tactics, sympathizes with the challenge he faces as he deals with three armed insurgencies, two leftist groups known by their Spanish initials, FARC and ELN; and a rightist paramilitary group, the AUC.
All are on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. The main U.S. worry is the FARC, with which Pastrana had been trying to negotiate peace before calling off the effort Thursday.
Boucher accused the FARC of increasing terrorist attacks since it negotiated on Jan. 20 a timetable with the government for peace talks.
The U.S. military has a strong presence in Colombia. The Defense Department has about 250 armed forces personnel, 50 civilian employees and 100 civilian contractors in the country, according to Steve Lucas, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, based in South Florida.
A senior official said no consideration is being given to allowing U.S. troops to accompany Colombian troops in the field. The official added that the law forbids use of any of the dozens of U.S. helicopters for activities other than counternarcotics.
The administration may permit increased U.S.-Colombian aerial spraying of narcotics fields, which the Colombians have been seeking. This could impair the three guerrilla groups because all make money from the drug trade.
Angered by perceived FARC intransigence, Pastrana launched air strikes and ordered 13,000 troops into territory that had been ceded to the guerrillas in 1998 to try to create an environment conducive to peace talks.
Administration officials and human rights groups have been worried that that AUC paramilitary units will fill the void left by departing FARC forces in the zone and carry out attacks on the civilian population for supposed leftist sympathies.
Colombian officials have told the administration they will make every effort to keep the AUC units out of the zone.
© 2002 The Associated Press