Published on Thursday, August 31, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
Colombian Rebels Give Clinton Fiery Welcome
by Martin Hodgson
President Bill Clinton flew into Colombia yesterday amid a countrywide outbreak of rebel violence and protests against a massive boost in US military aid to the government.
Leftwing guerrillas attacked police stations and army posts, bombs exploded outside banks and masked students clashed with riot police.
On Tuesday night, rebels attacked 12 police stations in six of the country's 32 departments. Five civilians, including two children, died when guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rained mortar bombs on a police station in the village of La Bateca, near the border with Venezuela.
In south-west Cali, the second largest city, Farc guerrillas detonated bombs outside three banks, causing widespread damage but no injuries, police said.
In the north-eastern oil- producing province of Arauca, another Farc unit attacked an army barracks near the town of Fortul on Tuesday afternoon, injuring six soldiers, an army spokeswoman said. Guerrillas also attacked an army post in the nearby town of Saravena. US-made Blackhawk helicopters flew to the region to strike back at the rebel column.
Rebel commanders have denounced the US aid package, which includes 60 helicopters, equipment and training for the Colombian army, saying that money will cause an escalation in the civil war, and eventually US-backed military action against the guerrillas.
"Clinton isn't here to support social investment but a military plan. We don't want to make threats, but the Colombian people have the rights to take to the streets and protest against this visit," the Farc commander, Andres Paris, told the Guardian.
"We have no military objective. We do not believe your conflict has a military solution. We support the peace process. Our approach is both pro-peace and anti-drug," Mr Clinton said.
Yesterday the Miami Herald reported that the Pentagon is planning to send an army general to oversee the military element of the aid package.
According to US law, a maximum of 500 American troops and 300 civilian contractors may be in Colombia at any time, but the president may waive the limit in the event of an "imminent involvement" of US forces in hostilities.
The largest chunk of American money will pay for 60 helicopters to support a military offensive in the rebel-dominated jungles of southern Colombia, where most of the world's cocaine is produced. The helicopters and three US-trained anti-narcotics army battalions will lead the advance, securing control of drug plantations to allow the police to eradicate illegal crops.
Mr Clinton waived strict human rights conditions to approve the aid last week, despite fears that the Colombian military maintains close ties with illegal rightwing paramilitary groups.
In its 1999 report, the state department reported "credible allegations of co-operation with paramiltary groups, including both silent support and direct collaboration."
Monitoring groups in Colombia fear that the American money will exacerbate the country's 35-year civil war and cause up to 200,000 people to flee their homes.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000