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U.S. says no aid for Colombia army units in scandal
Thu Nov 6, 2008 7:15pm EST
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By Patrick Markey
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Three Colombian army units had their right to U.S. military aid revoked after officers and soldiers were implicated in a growing scandal over the killing of civilians, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
President Alvaro Uribe has fired more than two dozen officers, and his army commander resigned, over charges troops were involved in executing 11 young men to present them as enemy combatants and inflate their body count in the country's long guerrilla war.
The scandal makes Colombia's proposed free trade deal and multibillion dollar U.S. aid package to fight insurgents and drug traffickers even more likely to face tougher scrutiny when President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
"We have determined that three army units are no longer eligible to receive assistance, a step we took based on the government of Colombia's information that these units were involved with gross violations of human rights," said the U.S. government official, who asked not to be identified.
The units -- the 2nd and 7th division commands and the 14th engineering battalion -- received U.S. aid in the past. But at the time they were they were not getting funds and no aid was planned for them, the official said.
U.S. law requires army units or individuals to be reviewed before receiving aid. There is credible evidence of rights violations by about 15 percent of Colombia's armed forces, making them ineligible for assistance, the official said.
The scandal broke over the killings of the 11 young men, who disappeared from their homes near Bogota earlier this year and whose bodies later turned up in mass graves near the border with Venezuela.
Their families say the men were recruited for work in northeastern Colombia, but they later were reported as armed fighters killed in battle by the military.
A government probe found negligence by army commanders and that some soldiers could be involved in murders.
AID UNDER REVIEW
Colombia's four-decade-old conflict has ebbed since Uribe sent troops to retake areas once under rebel control. Cities are safer, investment has soared and Colombians travel highways that were once a hunting ground for guerrilla kidnap squads.
Human rights groups have long said Uribe's drive against rebels has spurred abuses and illegal executions, especially in rural areas where the government's presence is still weak and armed groups fight over cocaine routes.
Uribe, who is popular for his security campaign, says the military purge shows his government is more concerned about rights abuses than previous administrations.
But the scandal will bolster critics of the amount of aid Washington sends to Colombia -- around $600 million a year, or the largest amount sent to any country outside the Middle East. U.S. Democrats want new aid to focus more on economic development projects instead of military financing.
Critics acknowledge that Colombia has become safer, but say drugs keep flowing toward the United States. A report by a U.S. congressional watchdog this week said the aid had failed in its aim of slashing cocaine exports by half in six years. Continued...
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