US crews involved in Colombian battle

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at SPAMtao.ca
Tue Feb 27 06:53:24 MST 2001


US crews involved in Colombian battle
http://thescotsman.co.uk/world.cfm?id=49768

Jeremy McDermott In Medellín

US PERSONNEL have become involved in fighting in Colombia's
37-year civil war for the first time, rescuing the crew of a
helicopter brought down by left-wing guerrillas, it emerged
yesterday.

The US is funding the world's largest aerial eradication
programme in an attempt to destroy drug crops in Colombia.
In an engagement at the weekend, guerrillas of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fired on a
crop dusting aircraft and supporting helicopters.

The pilot of a US-supplied Huey helicopter was hit in the
barrage of small arms fire, but managed to land his stricken
craft.

Two other helicopter gunships circled the grounded
helicopter, firing on the guerrillas, while the crew of a
third helicopter rescued the crew.

The pilots of some of the choppers in the rescue were
Americans contracted by the US state department, a US
Embassy source said.

"The FARC were 100 to 200 yards away," Capt Giancarlo
Cotrino, the pilot of the downed helicopter, said from his
hospital bed in Bogotá.

"We fought for seven or eight minutes - one of my crewmen
had a grenade launcher and I had a pistol - until the SAR
[search and rescue helicopter] came in behind us, landed and
picked us up in the middle of a very hot firefight."

The rescue helicopter carried four US citizens and two
Colombians, all armed with M-16s. Most of the SAR teams in
Colombia are former members of the US special forces, the US
source said.

Last year, when the $1.3 billion (£900 million) aid package
to Colombia was approved by Congress, several rules were
imposed.

One was that no more than 500 US military personnel could be
stationed in Colombia at any time. Another was that they
were not to become directly involved in fighting.

"The department of defence will not step over the line that
divides counter-narcotics from counter-insurgency," Maria
Salazar, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for drug
enforcement policy, told a US congressional subcommittee.

However, private US companies, paid by the state department
and staffed by former US special forces and pilots, face no
such restrictions.

US military personnel in Colombia conduct a variety of
training and monitoring roles. Three US-trained and equipped
anti-narcotics battalions have been created, while US navy
specialists train Colombian marines, who patrol the rivers
that are the only means of transporting much of the nation.

Five radar and listening stations are manned by US
personnel, and others are liaison officers at the Colombian
Joint Intelligence Centre (JIC), which the US helped set up.

According to the letter of the law, the rules regarding US
involvement in the civil conflict have not been broken, as
serving military personnel have not been caught in active
combat roles.

However, by providing intelligence on guerrilla movements
and actions, the US is already taking an active role in the
counter-insurgency war.

In March 1999 the US government issued new guidelines that
allow sharing of intelligence about guerrilla activity in
Colombia's southern drug-producing region, even if the
information is not directly related to the fight against
narcotics.

The activities of private companies in the pay of the US are
not covered under the rules imposed on military personnel.

"This is what we call outsourcing a war," said one
congressional aide in Washington, who asked not to be named.

The company involved in last weekend's engagement with
guerrillas is called DynCorp. It has been contracted since
1997 by the US state department to provide pilots, trainers
and maintenance workers for the aerial eradication
programme.

What had not been known was that they piloted helicopter
gunships that are used in an offensive capability when crop
dusting aircraft came under fire. Three DynCorp pilots have
been killed in operations, but one pilot said that at
$90,000 a year tax free, the rewards were as high as the
risks.

Another company, hired by the US defence department on a $6
million a year contract, is Military Professional Resources
Inc (MPRI), a Virginia-based military-consultant company run
by retired US generals. Its 14-man team, holed up in an
upmarket hotel in Bogotá, refuses to speak to The Scotsman.

Brian Sheridan, the senior Pentagon official who oversees
the work of MPRI, said in congressional testimony in March
last year that the firm's role in Colombia was not sinister,
just "a manpower issue", insisting the US southern command
did not have the men to spare to give strategic and logistic
advice to the Colombian army.

"It's very handy to have an outfit not part of the US armed
forces, obviously," said the former US ambassador to
Colombia, Myles Frechette. "If somebody gets killed or
whatever, you can say it's not a member of the armed
forces."

Despite massive military aid to Colombia, the US has
insisted it is not getting itself into another Vietnam. But
an MPRI spokesman, Ed Soyster, a retired US army lieutenant
general and former director of the defence department's
defence intelligence agency, compared the need for secrecy
in Colombia with the need for secrecy in Vietnam.

"When I was in Vietnam, I wouldn't want to tell you about my
operation," he said. "If the enemy knows about it, he can
counter it."

Human rights groups say the use of private contractors in
Colombia is a ploy to ensure actions are carried out that US
troops under congressional restrictions cannot perform. They
say "deniability" is the name of the game.

"We're outsourcing the war in a way that is not
accountable," said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.









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