U.S. Special Forces Arrive in Colombia

7th Special Forces Group (ABN)
January 16, 2003, 11:03 PM EST

By VANESSA ARRINGTON Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Dozens of U.S. Green Berets flew in to a Colombian war zone this week to train Colombian army troops to protect a key oil pipeline from rebel attacks, a U.S. official said Thursday. 

The arrival of the members of the 7th Special Forces Group marks a turning point in U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. Previously, U.S. military aid and training was restricted largely to battling cocaine production, which rebels and rival paramilitary gunmen profit from, fueling the war. 

But the Bush administration, with approval from the U.S. Congress, has decided the U.S. military assistance should expand into helping Colombia combat the rebels. 

About 60 U.S. trainers began arriving earlier this week, joining about 10 others already stationed in Arauca state on Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela, said the U.S. official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. 

On Thursday, about 20 U.S. troops drove up to Arauca airport in jeeps, then unloaded equipment, including military vehicles, from an arriving plane, according to a reliable witness who insisted on anonymity. 

Numerous shipments of equipment and supplies are expected over the next few weeks, the U.S. official said. The troops -- who are settling in to military barracks on Colombian army bases throughout Arauca state -- are expected to begin training at the end of the month, he said. 

Leftist rebels are battling the government in Arauca, an area of grassy plains and oilfields. The rebels regularly bomb the pipeline and have stepped up their attacks on military and police targets in recent weeks. 

The members of U.S. troops, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., are to train two Colombian army brigades that protect an oil pipeline that carries oil for Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum across northern Colombia to a seaside depot. 

Rebels have attacked the pipeline, Colombia's second largest, dozens of times this year. In December, suspected rebels forced a bus driver transporting security workers for Cano Limon oil field to park the vehicle next to explosives, killing two workers and injuring 11 in the ensuing explosion. 

Car bombs and mortar attacks are also common in the region. 

U.S. special forces have already trained a 2,000-member Colombian army counternarcotics brigade as part of almost US$2 billion in mostly military aid the United States has given Colombia over the past three years. 

Copyright 2003, The Associated Press

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