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Colombian Rebels Warn Against Use of U.S. Copters

Latin America: Guerrillas say Black Hawk role in supporting police will escalate nation's civil war.


LOS POZOS, Colombia — Using U.S.-donated helicopters to reinforce Colombian police during guerrilla attacks will escalate this country's prolonged civil conflict and draw America closer to direct involvement in the fighting, a rebel spokesman warned Tuesday.

Raul Reyes, spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, this country's oldest and largest guerrilla force, said helicopters used to rescue police during attacks will be considered "military targets," subject to being shot down.

He made the remarks in this rebel-controlled hamlet a day after State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said in Washington that the Clinton administration will not "second-guess" the way Colombian police decide to use Black Hawk helicopters donated by the United States for the fight against illegal drugs.

Reeker's statement added fuel to the debate over the U.S. role in Colombia, a country where a 36-year conflict has been exacerbated in the past decade by drug money that has left both the rebels and the right-wing private armies that pursue them better armed than the military.

The helicopters, piloted by Colombian police, have generally been used to protect planes that fumigate crops of opium poppies and coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. Colombia supplies about three-fourths of the world's cocaine and an increasing share of the heroin sold in the United States.

After recent guerrilla attacks on police outposts, U.S. congressional members who support the Colombian police have criticized the Clinton administration for allegedly preventing use of the helicopters for reinforcement or rescue operations. When police officers were killed late last month in a remote area after guerrillas pinned them down and they ran out of ammunition, the U.S. Embassy released a statement denying that the ambassador had prohibited the Colombians from sending the helicopters in for support.

Weather conditions were blamed for grounding the aircraft both then and over the weekend, when a guerrilla incursion left the northern town of Arboleda in ruins. Only four of more than two dozen police assigned to the town are known to have survived the attack, which was carried out with weapons that included gas cylinders hurled like Molotov cocktails.

On Monday, Reeker said the Black Hawks could be used in such situations.

"What they are trying to do is intimidate us," said Reyes, the rebel spokesman. "But all that intimidation and threats will achieve is a more forceful reply of the Colombians in defense of our national sovereignty.

"This is direct intervention of the United States in the internal affairs of Colombia," he said.

The helicopters used by police have been donated over the past two years and are not part of the $1.3-billion anti-narcotics aid package approved by the U.S. Congress in late June. Reyes called the package "an attack against the Colombian peace process," whose negotiations are now entering their 18th month.

Only two of the helicopters to be supplied as part of the new aid bundle are destined for the police. The rest will go to the army to support recently formed anti-narcotics battalions.

Both the $289 million in anti-narcotics aid given to Colombia last year and the new package are restricted to being used in the fight against drug production and trafficking. However, the line between the drug war and the guerrilla war in Colombia is often blurred because rebels collect "taxes" on drug crops grown in areas under their control.

Further, U.S. congressional supporters of the Colombian police have long urged crossing that line.

The most vocal of those, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), said during a conference in Washington last year, "The administration has been so preoccupied with avoiding being involved in Colombia's counterinsurgency efforts that it has permitted the situation to erode and deteriorate."

However, Reyes disputed the notion that the United States has been extra-careful about avoiding counter-guerrilla activities.

"Ever since the Black Hawks arrived, they have been used against us," he said. "What [the U.S. is] doing now is publicly recognizing that they can be used."

Both civilian pilots flying fumigation planes under contract and helicopter pilots protecting them have reported being fired on by rebels over the past two years. Guerrillas have said that they fired on the aircraft to protect civilians from fumigation chemicals.

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