May 23, 2001

U.S. senator says future U.S. aid to Colombian military at stake

                 BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- A U.S. senator ratcheted up pressure for
                 Colombia's military to sever links with right-wing paramilitary forces by
                 challenging a top army commander to shut down a militia base.

                 The challenge by U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone comes weeks after the U.S. State
                 Department listed the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or
                 AUC, as a terrorist organization.

                 Concerned about the Colombian army's longtime links to paramilitaries -- who have been
                 massacring suspected rebel collaborators -- the U.S. Congress set human rights conditions that
                 would have to be met before aid from Washington could be spent. Colombia failed some
                 of the conditions, but last year then-President Bill Clinton issued a national security waiver
                 allowing a $1.3 billion aid package to flow.

                 Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, says support for future assistance from
                 Washington "will erode if the Colombian military does not take prompt, effective
                 steps to end paramilitary operations, which too often result in atrocities."

                 In a letter to army Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno -- a copy of which the senator's
                 office sent on Wednesday to The Associated Press -- Wellstone urged the commander
                 of the army's 5th Brigade to take action against the AUC's base in San Rafael de Lebrija,
                 in north-central Colombia.

                 "The base is operating openly in an area under your command, and its activities
                 have directly caused much of the bloodshed in the region," Wellstone said in the
                 letter, dated May 22.

                 A Jesuit human rights activist in the region, the Rev. Francisco de Roux, said
                 such specific pressure is needed to prompt the military to act against the
                 paramilitaries with the same vigor they have been attacking leftist rebels.

                 "This helps to make the whole issue of (military efforts against) paramilitaries
                 more transparent," de Roux said in a phone interview from the northern town of

                 Wellstone reminded Carreno that the two had discussed the paramilitary base
                 during the senator's visit to Barrancabermeja in March, and added: "Almost three
                 months after our meeting, however, it is my understanding that you have taken
                 no effective action to curtail the operations of the ... base, and that it remains
                 open for business."

                 Wellstone suggested Carreno take immediate "actions ... against this paramilitary

                 The AP attempted to reach Carreno, at his base in the northern city of
                 Bucaramanga, but troops answering the phone said he was gone for the day and
                 out of contact.

                 The government announced earlier this week that Carreno's forces had captured
                 a paramilitary commander, Francisco Correa, in Barrancabermeja and said that,
                 nationwide, the army has killed 34 AUC members and captured 188 since the
                 start of the year.

                 Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez insisted in an interview last
                 March that the army was attacking paramilitary forces, but said it would be
                 fruitless to move against some paramilitary bases, because the fighters would be
                 alerted to the approach of a large force of government troops and would flee.

                 Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.